Over the coming weeks, much energy will be devoted to the attempted closure of the Penn State scandal; to the isolation of Jerry Sandusky as a disturbed man with serious and criminal psychological problems; to the alleged dereliction of duty by Penn State administrators, two of whom, like Sandusky himself, might ultimately wind up in prison; and to the renewal of a university now home to the worst scandal in the history of American sports.
There will be talk of the judicial system, which took less than two weeks of trial and less than 48 hours of jury deliberation to hand down a guilty verdict on 45 of 48 counts of sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years. There will be talk about how so many people in the Penn State community suspected what Sandusky was and yet did nothing. Hopefully, more than just the reading of the verdict and the relief that brings, there will be a lifetime's worth of full compassion and assistance and resources for the young people and their families, whose lives can never be completely rebuilt.
The most important element of this tragedy, the element that demands the most attention and yet is at risk of disappearing fastest from the national conscience, is the enduring question of why. Why Jerry Sandusky was allowed to prey on children for so long when his trial revealed an intense level of suspicion of him over several years by people in sufficient position to stop him. Why so many supposedly concerned, educated and well-meaning people allowed such a person to exist in their community.
While Sandusky must stand alone, responsible for his individual choices and pathologies, the answer to why he was allowed access to kids, why no one stood up to stop him, why so many people felt it necessary to make phone calls to everyone -- to their fathers, to the coaches, to administrators, to each other -- but not to the police, is simple: Joe Paterno and Penn State football. There is no other reason.
Acting against Sandusky would have negatively affected the program, and a negative effect on the program would have produced a negative effect on Paterno, the untouchable, the legend. Coming forward against Sandusky, challenging the big institution in the small town, presented the risk of being the outcast, the whistle-blower. No community likes to challenge its false notions of itself or to acknowledge that, yes, something so horrible occurred in its backyard despite its residents' idealized vision of themselves.
The mythology of the coach and the hagiography of the institution, the immediate reflex to protect the institution and the fear of crossing it, far more than Sandusky himself, allowed this tragedy to mushroom. Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat, whether it occurs in the church, the university or the Boy Scouts.
Denial is a happy, crowded place. Sandusky, who claimed to be a family man, who put his wife on the stand to vouch for him, who based his defense on being a solid member of the community and trying to help young men, will go to prison as a sexual predator and manipulator of children. But it is Paterno who will always be the key to understanding why this dragged on. Those who failed to stop Sandusky might have thought they were protecting Paterno and his monument, but their inaction was not in his best interest (and might not even have been what the old man wanted).
The question of why will stay with Penn State long after Sandusky is gone to prison, long after the Paterno apologists dwindle in number. And the answer to the question of why -- Sandusky was allowed to exist because no one dared challenge the power of Penn State or Paterno, no one wanted to threaten the legacy of the football powerhouse and the great man himself -- will resonate throughout every powerful institution in the country.
What sure looks like a conspiracy took place at Penn State for at least the past 15 years, and it will repeat itself. It is occurring right now in different ways at institutions across the country. It is the conspiracy of power, and now it is up to us to decide whether once and for all to crush the runaway culture of the coach, the outsized elevation of mortal institutions, and to demand accountability and responsibility. If these institutions are so important, so worthy and vital, they do not need to be protected by their followers from themselves or from the truth. Penn State and Joe Paterno should have been protecting their community, not the other way around.
This is why Joe Paterno matters, why he will always matter, even -- no, especially -- in death. This is the reason he was appropriately fired and held responsible for Sandusky. This is the reason the administrators at the university were and should be appropriately held accountable. This is why Paterno apologists -- who lash out in anger that the old man was targeted unfairly and that he followed the proper channels and that there was no possible action Joe Paterno could have taken to prevent perhaps the worst, most damaging scandal in the history of American sports -- have much passion and love, but little credibility. It is the price of power. Paterno enjoyed it in life and will be defined by it in death, as will all of the people involved for the rest of their lives. It is that power's blindness to Sandusky's victims, and what that means for the rest of their lives. And yet there is hope, for the failed culture of the past doesn't have to be part of the future.