Commentary

Ignorance no excuse for Joe Paterno

Originally Published: January 15, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

What becomes so obvious while reading Sally Jenkins' extraordinary interview piece with Joe Paterno is that Paterno still doesn't fully comprehend his role in a scandal that still divides a university, that still creates more questions than answers.

Paterno provided his version of the truth to the veteran Washington Post columnist, one of the very best in our business. Jenkins doesn't suffer fools, liars or hypocrites gladly.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
John McDonnell/The Washington PostFormer Penn State coach Joe Paterno was interviewed Thursday and Friday by The Washington Post at his home in State College, Pa.

Her description of Paterno sitting in a wheelchair, his voice soft and raspy, "like wind blowing across a field of winter stalks," is haunting. The image of the 85-year-old JoePa, his hands tremoring as he sipped a soft drink, is jarring. The thought of him wearing a wig -- a concession to the chemotherapy and radiation treatments for his lung cancer -- is heartbreaking.

His body has been ravaged by age, by the cancer and by a broken pelvis. But after reading what he said to Jenkins -- and what he didn't say to her -- I also wonder about the condition of his soul.

When asked by Jenkins why, when told in 2002 that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had been seen in a shower at the PSU football facility fondling a young boy, he reported it to school officials and then became inert on the issue, Paterno said:

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. 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."

Backed away or turned his back?

Deep down, I think Paterno knows he was informed of a profound wrong and that he chose ignorance and the convenience of bureaucracy over an inconvenient and horrific truth.

This is a man who tried to dictate his own resignation terms to the school's board of trustees. This is a man who, according to a former Penn State vice president of student affairs, regularly challenged and interfered with her oversight role of the school's disciplinary process.

Last November, Vicky Triponey told USA Today that Paterno exerted pressure on her in cases involving Nittany Lions football players. During one such investigation, Triponey said Paterno instructed his players not to cooperate with the school's office of student conduct.

So now you have to take a Paterno leap of faith. He didn't want to jeopardize university procedure on the case involving his longtime assistant -- that's his story. But, according to Triponey, he regularly did so on disciplinary inquiries involving his players.

Paterno's explanation feels disingenuous, as thin as a sheet of typing paper.

He told Jenkins of a 1999 conversation he had with Sandusky, in which he informed the Penn State assistant that he wouldn't succeed Paterno as head coach:

"I said, you know, Jerry, you want to be head coach, you can't do as much as you're doing with the other operation [Sandusky's Second Mile charity]. I said this job takes so much detail, and for you to think you can go off and get involved in fundraising and a lot of things like that … I said you can't do both, that's basically what I told him."

And this, when describing his coaching philosophy: "My thing was play as hard as you can, don't be stupid, pay attention to details, and have enough guts in the clutch that you're not afraid to make a play. Some things I thought were important for a young man to know."

And for an old man, too.

Paterno didn't follow his own advice. For someone so obsessed with detail, he failed to fully recognize the impact of those 2002 Sandusky allegations. Either that, or he chose to ignore them.

Guts? He showed the bare minimum. He didn't report the allegations to police. He showed a perfunctory interest in the disposition of the in-house investigation (such as it was) involving one of his former coaches, in his football facility and on his watch.

Paterno should listen to himself. Better yet, he should ask himself this: If a player had offered Paterno the same excuses and justifications, what would he have told that player?

I do believe Paterno when he tells Jenkins that such allegations of child sexual abuse were beyond his comprehension, "because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

But did he think a college athletic director (PSU's Tim Curley) and a career Penn State bureaucrat with no formal law enforcement training (Gary Schultz, who oversaw, among other departments, the university police force) would have any more insight?

Paterno conducted the interview surrounded by his family and monitored by his lawyer and a communications adviser. He wanted to defend his considerable legacy at Penn State -- the vast philanthropy, the industry-defining graduation rates, the most victories in major college football history.

But there remains little defense for his decision not to do more after passing along the Sandusky allegations to Curley and Schultz. But at least he did something, unlike others up and down the Sandusky timeline.

I've read the Paterno interview a half dozen times. To me, he sounds like a man wracked by illness and by an affliction even more painful.

A guilty heart.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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