- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
- 0 Shares
The Paterno family's announcement Monday that they're hiring their own experts to do a comprehensive "review" of the Freeh report that scathingly fingered Joe Paterno as part of a cover-up that allowed suspected child molester Jerry Sandusky to operate for years is yet another bald attempt to put preserving Paterno's legacy as a football coach above all else. In other words, it reeks of the same sort of hubris and misplaced priorities that led to so many grotesque things happening at Penn State in the first place.
The family's promise to avenge the dismantling of their late patriarch's reputation, no matter how long it takes, is also sure to draw mocking comparisons to the credibility problem O.J. Simpson battled when he vowed to find the "real" killer of Nicole Brown Simpson.
The Paterno family -- like Paterno himself, before he died in January -- has vacillated between public expressions of sympathy for Sandusky's victims and vehement refutations of any suggestion that Paterno knew what crimes might have been going on.
Now that Joe is dead and isn't here to speak for himself, the family is essentially planning to construct its own competing version of an "official" history to stand alongside the 267-page report that Penn State commissioned from former FBI director Louis Freeh, a man who supposedly knows how to construct conclusions that will withstand the harshest scrutiny for any hint of prejudice, malice or factual mistakes, a man whose investigation unearthed disconcerting documents that hadn't been presented by prosecutors before now.
This is an act of stubbornness and defiance by the Paterno family, not just desperation or spasm of understandable grief. And it looks like an even more astonishing act of hubris when you factor in the details that came out in a New York Times report on July 13, one day after Freeh's conclusions were released, detailing the $5.5 million exit package and perks for his family that Paterno sought the same month he was called to testify before the grand jury that convened in January 2011 to investigate Sandusky. By August, Paterno and Spanier, who were both embroiled in the Sandusky investigation, had reached an agreement on the package, unbeknownst to Penn State's full board of trustees.
Even after Sandusky was arrested in November, according to the Times, the Paterno family fought for some perks -- such as access to the university's private jet, and a suite at the stadium next to the president's (rather than a new suite one level down) for a period of 25 years after Paterno retired -- actions that smack of the same sort of entitlement and Joe Pa displayed when he was alive, and still flouting his status as the most powerful man at Penn State with stunts like kicking his bosses, Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley, out of his house when there was a movement afoot to replace him as football coach, declaring, "I'll decide when I retire."
Paterno tried the same tactic when the full list of allegations against Sandusky became known; this time, the university fired him instead.
The footing to make unilateral pronouncements or demands in Paterno's name is gone now, but the Paterno family hasn't gotten the message.
It's as if they're behaving on muscle memory based on years of watching Joe operate.
The day the Freeh report was released, Paterno's son Jay dismissed it as just "an opinion" -- this though Freeh based some of his conclusions on more than 400 interviews and a forensic review of more than 3 million documents and emails, some of which showed Paterno's bosses discussing Paterno's interest in how the Sandusky matter was handled. The trial that led to Sandusky's June 26 conviction on 45 counts revealed some of what really went on behind the curtain in those showers just a stone's throw away from Paterno's office in the football building, and the scheduled upcoming trials of Spanier, Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz are likely to provide more.
But what Freeh revealed in his report is damning: Paterno was aware of a 1998 accusation and investigation into Sandusky and followed it "closely." So did his Penn State superiors who have now been charged. Freeh cites emails and confidential notes by Schultz about the progress of the inquiry, such as: "Behavior -- at best inappropriate @ worst sexual improprieties," Schultz wrote. And this: "At min -- Poor Judgment. Is this opening of pandora's box?" and "Other children?"
A May 5, 1998 email from Curley to Schultz and Spanier was titled "Joe Paterno" and it says, "I have touched base with the coach. Keep us posted. Thanks."
An email dated May 13, 1998, from Curley to Schultz titled "Jerry," says, "Anything new [in] this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands."
There's too much more in the report to recount here. Suffice to say, by the time a new allegation against Sandusky surfaced in 2001 -- this time from alleged eyewitness Mike McQueary, then a football graduate assistant coach who has already testified under oath -- Paterno had two reasons to suspect Sandusky was a pedophile, and shared a responsibility to confront him about it.
Yet Paterno himself said he never did.
As Freeh so damningly put it, Paterno and the other Penn State officials spoke of treating Sandusky "humanely" but didn't show similar concern for the boys he forced into sexual encounters.
If the Paterno family hasn't noticed, many of the football coach's staunchest supporters have now abandoned the cause, admitting they feel duped.
His good friend Phil Knight's company, Nike -- a corporation that stood by Kobe Bryant and other athletes in their darkest days -- removed Paterno's name from a child care building on its Oregon campus. Just this week an artist who painted a heroic mural of Paterno in State College just removed the halo floating above his head. Penn State still doesn't have a permanent replacement for Spanier as president, and there are robust debates raging about whether to leave the on-campus statue of Paterno in place. The university has already announced the locker room and showers where some of Sandusky's abuse took place will be razed and rebuilt differently.
There are also now calls to give the football program the death penalty -- more fallout that would render the Paterno family's demand to retain that better-positioned football stadium luxury box even as Sandusky's child victims were coming out of the woodwork the shamefully blinkered status grab it was.
Freeh's report may indeed be proven to contain some errors or omissions. Pending trials and lawsuits may add details to this sad story. Three more alleged victims of Sandusky's surfaced just Monday.
But it's hard to imagine the Paterno family group finding anything that disputes Paterno's own admission, just before he died, that, "I wish I could have done more."
And there is a little more that can be done.
Rather than spend money on yet more hired guns, the Paterno family could take the $3 million cash portion of the golden parachute that Paterno was paid and donate it to groups that help survivors of child sexual abuse.
If the Paterno family really wants to restore a bit of the shine on their father and husband's name, that gesture would be a better place to start. Not by wasting ill-gotten money that was crowbarred away from the university -- in one last act of defiance and cynical power leveraging -- on a fool's errand like trying to restore the image of a man that is beyond repair.
The decision to create their own investigation is an act of stubbornness and defiance by the Paterno family, not just desperation or spasm of understandable grief.