On Saturday, The Washington Post published Joe Paterno's first interview since the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke in November. Those who were hoping for solid answers on how Penn State could have harbored an alleged child sex-abuser under Paterno's watch probably came away disappointed.
In the interview with Sally Jenkins, Paterno sounded many of the same themes we have heard from his issued public statements and from his sons: that he reported what he knew about Sandusky to his superiors and that he was unaware of his longtime assistant's alleged abuse until Mike McQueary brought forth an allegation about Sandusky in the shower with a boy in 2002.
The story paints Paterno as being in much worse physical condition than when we last saw him in public, the day before his firing Nov. 9. Since then, it has been revealed that the winningest coach in Division I history is dealing with lung cancer. Jenkins writes that Paterno is using a wheelchair, is wearing a wig because of chemotherapy treatments and labors to speak. He has experienced fogginess from the chemo and has had trouble eating. Paterno finished the interview Friday and was admitted to the hospital later that day for further observation.
Paterno seems aware that time might be running out for him, but he hopes he has enough time left to restore his tarnished legacy.
The story, while lacking many bombshells, adds to our understanding of how Paterno says he handled the allegations McQueary brought to him.
"He was very upset and I said why, and he was very reluctant to get into it,” Paterno said. “He told me what he saw, and I said, what? He said it, well, looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I’m not quite sure exactly how he put it. I said you did what you had to do. It’s my job now to figure out what we want to do. So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said, ‘Hey, we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?’ Cause I didn’t know, you know. We never had, until that point, 58 years I think, I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn’t feel adequate.”
Many have wondered why Paterno, the most powerful figure in the Penn State community, didn't personally do more instead of merely reporting the accusation up the chain of command.
"I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way. ...
"I didn’t know which way to go,” he said. “And rather than get in there and make a mistake ...”
Paterno also portrayed himself as being too much from the old world to really understand what McQueary was telling him. McQueary, the former Penn State assistant coach, testified to the grand jury that he witnessed what he believed to be a sexual encounter between Sandusky and what appeared to be a 10-year-old boy in a locker room shower at the school's football complex. McQueary has said he was reluctant to get into too many details with the then-78-year-old Paterno but that he later described in more detail what he saw to school administrators.
“You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best."
To me, that defense rings false. There's no question Paterno is from a different generation, one in which certain types of sexual behavior were often not spoken about. But no matter what age you are, you should be able to quickly ascertain that any sexual activity between a man and a child is both wrong and illegal. There aren't many ways to go when it comes to that, except to do everything in your power to stop it.
How many opportunities did Paterno have to stop Sandusky? Although Sandusky worked alongside Paterno for more than 30 years, Paterno said in the interview that he never suspected Sandusky of any deviant behavior. As for Sandusky's oddly timed retirement in 1999, Paterno said he thought it was because he had told Sandusky that he would never succeed him as Penn State head coach. Paterno said he was frustrated with how much time Sandusky was spending at his children's charity, The Second Mile, rather than coaching and recruiting. Prosecutors have alleged Sandusky used The Second Mile to recruit his victims.
Paterno said he was not close to Sandusky and could not recall the last time he had seen or spoken to him. Sandusky had been investigated by local police in 1998, but Paterno said he was unaware of that.
“You know it wasn’t like it was something everybody in the building knew about,” Paterno said. “Nobody knew about it.”
That, too, seems hard to believe. In a best-case scenario, Paterno's insistence that he was unaware of what was going on in his own football building confirms what many had long suspected: that the now-85-year-old was far too out of touch and ineffective to be running a major college football program. In the worst case, it shows negligence or willful ignorance.
To Paterno's credit, he doesn't point fingers at others for what happened in the Sandusky case. His wife, Sue, is upset at how Paterno was fired by the school's Board of Trustees. The Paternos say a school administrator showed up at their door at 10 p.m. Nov. 9 with trustee vice chairman John Surma's phone number written on a slip of paper; when Paterno called it, he quickly was told he'd been fired.
But in the interview, Paterno expressed little anger at the way the university has treated him.
“You know, I’m not as concerned about me,” he said. “What’s happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great grandchildren. I’ve had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don’t want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful.”
So why has Paterno, who has not been accused of any legal wrongdoing, waited so long to speak out?
"I wanted everybody to settle down," he said.
This interview likely won't settle the debate between those who say Paterno was martyred in this scandal and those who think Paterno bears a large share of responsibility. You can believe Paterno did what was legally required and was too old to understand the ramifications of the McQueary allegations. Or you can believe Paterno simply didn't want to know more about what was happening.
In the end, we all want to know how something this ugly could have occurred at Penn State or anywhere. After Paterno's first interview -- and given his health, who knows how much more we'll hear from him -- we're still left wondering.