Zemek: Penn State's disastrous controversy

Staff Columnist
Posted Nov 6, 2011

You have an opinion on Joe Paterno. I have an opinion on Joe Paterno. Everyone's wondering about Joe Paterno. Everyone also wants a steep price to be paid by Penn State University administrators. It's necessary to get to that place, but one must tread carefully and with great nuance before arriving at precise, calibrated conclusions in this sickening, wrenching saga.

By Matthew Zemek
Mr. Zemek's e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com

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Penn State Of Horror… And Moral Complexity
What did JoePa know and when did he know it?

While Joe Paterno hasn't been implicated in any wrongdoing in any way, and he appears to have been shielded from the nightmare, this is his football program, and in so many ways, his university.

Saturday delivered a bombshell that might actually end up overshadowing the supposed "Game of the Century." The charges of sexual abuse of minors, levied against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, were chilling enough in their own right, but further charges brought against two Penn State administrators created even more nationwide revulsion.

Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Of Finance And Business Gary Schultz were charged with perjury and failure to report child abuse, bringing the dreaded C-word – "cover-up" – back into our common vocabulary.

Moreover, the fact that Penn State President Graham Spanier expressed his full and unconditional support for Curley and Schultz, in the face of a formidable amount of evidence pointing to their involvement in the alleged cover-up, created the distinct impression that Penn State's administration is still, even now, more concerned with the welfare of its own employees than with vulnerable young boys.

It's true that only one man – Jerry Sandusky – is charged with sexual abuse; it's not as though multiple predators had the run of the Penn State campus.

Curley and Schultz, the two administrators charged with perjury and failure to report the sexual abuse of a minor, have both been associated with Penn State for at least 37 years (since 1974) if not more, dating back to their time as PSU students. Both men worked up the ladder at the school and have not only spent, but MADE, their adult lives in State College. The same is true for Spanier, the president, who became a PSU faculty member in 1973 before becoming the president of the school in 1995, which was right around the time when many of Sandusky's alleged abuses began.

As for Sandusky himself, the center of this sickening, awful story attended Penn State beginning in 1963. He was Joe Paterno's graduate assistant in 1966 and then began a 31-season run on JoePa's staff in 1969, continuing without interruption through the 1999 season.

We think of Joe Paterno as an enduring, iconic figure, but what gets lost in the focus is that just about every person of importance in this Penn State story had a longstanding relationship with the school and with him. Moreover, details from the 23-page grand jury presentment in this case show that officials in the university police department allegedly played their own significant roles in covering up Sandusky's alleged abuses.

Ronald Schreffler, the detective who conducted the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, didn't file charges against Sandusky. Schreffler testified that then-director of police Thomas Harmon ordered Schreffler to close his investigation.

PSU counsel Wendell Courtney, for his part, worked for the school in 1998 while also serving as the counsel for The Second Mile, Sandusky's charitable organization. You can see what everyone else sees at Penn State: A layered, dense good ol' boy network that – if the allegations in the grand jury presentment are true – engaged in a systematic, extended cover-up of Sandusky's abuses, willfully looking the other way and deciding to shield Paterno from knowledge of these incidents.

The grand jury presentment is nothing if not a damning revealer of a pervasive environment in which questions were discouraged and decisive action was not valued at Penn State. The one person who stepped forth to ask a question in March of 2002, Mike McQueary, was a 28-year-old graduate assistant at the time. All of the people with seniority and longevity at Penn State, going all the way to Spanier at the top of the university's structure, did not ask questions or express any appreciable desire to answer them; the young adult appeared to be the only grownup in the room.

Now what should be done to Penn State's football program?

Paterno might be the iconic figure in this story – he is the face of Penn State to the American public – but he is not (and was not) the person in charge of Penn State University or its athletic department. Spanier is the president of Penn State and Curley is the AD. When McQueary (the 28-year-old grad assistant) went to Paterno in March 2002 with reports of Sandusky's abusive activity, Paterno passed that information to Curley, the person who was most centrally responsible (with Spanier's blessing) for ensuring that Sandusky was barred from campus and did not enjoy the privileges he was granted within the PSU athletic department upon his retirement from Paterno's coaching staff in 1999.

Paterno did not cover up in March of 2002. He did not diminish the nature of the information McQueary brought to him. He did not sweep this under the rug, and since Sandusky was not under his employ in March of 2002, Paterno did not have the foremost obligation to pursue the investigation. That was in Schultz's hands, as the man tasked with overseeing the university police.

Paterno did not cover up… at least not in March of 2002. If it turns out that he knew of Sandusky's behavior before Sandusky left his post in 1999, THEN Paterno would join Spanier, Curley, Schultz, Courtney, and university police officials – Schreffler and Harmon in particular – as someone who committed the unforgiveable sin of knowingly putting underage boys at risk. But he hasn't been implicated in any wrongdoing.

Paterno is not a hero in this, but he's also a long way from being any sort of a villain. Other figures in this drama can be seen in sharper relief, with more clarity and anger, but it's Paterno who'll be on center stage throughout the controversy.

While he fulfilled minimum obligations and did not cover up Sandusky's (reported or alleged) behavior in March of 2002, Paterno – given the severity of the issue and the implications of Sandusky's actions – should have done more. At the very least, he not only could have, but should have, made personal inquiries, using his influence to make sure that the interests of those (potentially) wronged by Sandusky were fully served. Given everything he's meant to Penn State, to college football, and to intercollegiate athletics over 46 years as a head coach, Paterno should not be the kind of coach who merely fulfills minimal obligations and doesn't lift a single finger to do more. Yet, in the same breath – and this can't be repeated enough – Paterno was NOT the man who was responsible for keeping Sandusky in and around PSU's athletic facilities in 2002.

It was NOT his call; it was Curley's call. Paterno existed in a larger context that was not conducive to the level of bold, crusading action that some critics are viewing as a baseline standard of conduct for JoePa in the wake of his March 2002 discovery of Sandusky's disturbing behavior. It's precisely because Sandusky was such a longtime associate of Paterno that it would be hard for Paterno to be the lead figure in a robust investigation. Ethics guidelines would suggest that Paterno would have had to recuse himself of the primary role in such a pursuit, or at least limit his powers or leverage. Realistically, since when does a longtime friend and boss conduct his own investigation of his trusted employee? Friends don't investigate friends; the job should fall to an independent and reputable outside authority. One must re-emphasize why the seniority and longevity of so many of the principles in this Sandusky saga underscored the need for Penn State administrators to bring state and county officials into the situation.

Having said that, it's worth noting that a very prominent person in local county government – then-Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar – decided in 1998 to not press charges against Sandusky following Schreffler's investigation… yes, the very same investigation Schreffler claims Harmon, the director of campus police, wanted to be closed. You can see that Paterno's role in this is not only unknown, but it's pretty far down the totem pole in terms of the most urgent questions that need to be answered. The bottom line on Paterno is that the bottom line – in all its fullness – won't be known for awhile.
But forget Joe Paterno for a moment – that drama might not resolve itself for a good long while. What counts at this point is to make sure Penn State officials and leaders, in they're indeed guilty, pay a very severe price for their sins of commission and omission over the past decade and a half.