Commentary

Joe Paterno will have to live with choice

The legendary coach's ultimate punishment will be looking in the mirror each morning

Updated: November 10, 2011, 12:38 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

As an enduring symbol of virtue, as a man charged with no crime, Joe Paterno likely believes that the loss of his job, his team, and his program at Penn State amounts to a severe price to pay for the alleged sexual abuses perpetrated by a longtime aide.

Paterno was fired by the university board of trustees Wednesday night, this after he announced he would retire at season's end. The board absolutely did the right thing, the only thing, as trotting Paterno out there against Nebraska for a victory lap would have represented one more unforgivable choice made at the victims' expense.

But after he comes to terms with the fact another 400 victories wouldn't have restored his tattered legacy, Paterno will realize that his endgame as head coach of the Nittany Lions will be a speeding ticket compared to the self-imposed sentence he'll serve until his final breath.

Paterno will have to live with his inaction in the Jerry Sandusky case. He'll have to live with the graphic details of young boys allegedly being raped, of young lives being destroyed. He'll have to live with the fact that some victims might've been spared if the great grandfather of college athletics -- a beloved do-gooder in a sport often lacking in redeeming social value -- hadn't spent less time and energy on trying to stop an alleged predator than he spends on his average Big Ten game plan.

Joe Paterno will have to live with himself, and his own indefensible choice to do as little as possible to help the defenseless boys Sandusky stands accused of violating on the property and watch of Paterno's Penn State.

"This is a tragedy," Paterno said in the statement announcing a retirement that never stood a chance. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Paterno advised that the university's board of trustees "should not spend a single minute discussing my status" (nice try) and maintained that his goal is to "finish the season with dignity and determination."

Determination? Maybe. Dignity?

It's a little too late for that, Coach. Paterno forfeited his right to coach against Nebraska, or anyone else, and he needed to be relieved of his duties now.

This isn't Woody Hayes going out with a sucker punch or Jim Tressel going down because he lied about the deals his players cut to score some silly tattoos.

By comparison, those were garden-variety sins in the run-amok enterprise that is major college football.

Paterno? That day in 2002 he decided to protect himself, and the notion of State College as Camelot, rather than do everything in his power to save a 10-year-old boy who was allegedly raped by Sandusky in the locker room showers -- that was the day Paterno surrendered his moral authority to lead and teach any group of young adults.

So he should've been ousted years ago, if only some Penn State administrators weren't just as eager to treat an eyewitness account of Sandusky forcing anal intercourse on a child as though it were a bad scouting report from an inexperienced coach.

Of course, even if the grad assistant in question, Mike McQueary, was too traumatized or intimidated to tell Paterno the unfathomable particulars of what he saw (and we'll see how that story develops), Paterno knew a naked Sandusky didn't belong anywhere near a naked grade schooler in the shower.

In his original statement on the case, after denying that McQueary informed him of "the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report," Paterno went on to concede that "it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky."

The former defensive coordinator stands accused of something that "inappropriate" couldn't begin to describe. Sandusky was indicted on felony charges of sexually abusing eight boys, and experts believe the damage inflicted on child victims in these cases can be everlasting.

"Sometimes it's repressed in victims, and they don't understand it until their mid-20s," said Dr. William Bainbridge, a distinguished research professor at the University of Dayton and a sex abuse expert who has testified in, or been consulted on, cases in 35 states.

"The abuse often leads to poor self-esteem, an inability to stand up for your own rights, depression, helplessness. ... Some victims find it difficult to get involved in meaningful relationships. They have trouble holding jobs. They strike out at their families because they feel ashamed of themselves, or they feel betrayed by their families or their institution, school, church, whatever it might be."

Leo Clark is one of many who can put a name and voice to the pain experienced by the lost boys of Penn State. As a child in Portland, Maine, Clark, now 57, said he was sexually abused by the revered and highly successful track coach at Cheverus High School, Charles Malia, who years later acknowledged to the Portland Press Herald that he did engage in abuse of young students.

"My innocence and my life were stolen," Clark said Tuesday night by phone. "I ended up having a nervous breakdown in college, I was in and out of institutions and I was put on five different medications. Hopefully the victims at Penn State don't go through the kind of life I had, because it hasn't been much of a life."

Clark's 48-year-old brother, John, a Portland photographer, said he also was an abuse victim and fully understands how the trauma can define and ultimately destroy a person's life.

"The abuse act itself becomes minimal relative to how it carries on in life and undermines you," John Clark said. "You live a life of self-sabotage, and every relationship you have is affected negatively.

"The whole experience brings to reality the expression 'a fate worse than death,' because when you're dead you're no fun to someone who wants to torture you."

John Clark has done his share of reading on the Penn State case -- who hasn't? -- and wants to make an important point on behalf of all child victims of sexual predators.

"If you're in a battlefield and mortally wounded," he said, "and people standing around you are arguing over who did it, do you really care when you're the one bleeding? The focus here shouldn't be on who to blame, or on, 'He knew, they knew, he should've known.'

"The focus should be on the well-being of the kids. The victims. They're the ones who are bleeding."

At Penn State, Joe Paterno could've helped stopped the bleeding years ago and instead passed the allegation to his athletic director and forgot all about it. So after absorbing the grand jury's findings, and listening to more heartbreaking testimony from abuse victims and their families, Paterno will eventually see that his firing will be the least of his penalties.

Every morning, the great-grandfather of college athletics will have to look into a mirror.

That's his life sentence.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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