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Joe Paterno probably deserves to be punished (but doesn’t deserve it yet)

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Society forgives a lot. Don King killed two people — yes, he really did kill one person, then decide this wasn’t enough so he later killed another — before he pulled his life together and entered that most honorable of professions: boxing promotion. (And in fairness, in the first case he was trying to protect one of his illegal gambling houses and in the second the guy owed him money.) Likewise, Mike Tyson served time for rape, but now most people tend to ignore that in favor of the nobler moments from his life, like when he sang along to “In the Air Tonight” in The Hangover or beat the hell out of Don King. Perhaps the only crime you can’t redeem yourself from over time is child abuse. And this may be why there doesn’t seem to be a measured response to it: it is an offense that seems either to get ignored completely or for which everyone connected in any way must be destroyed immediately, disregarding the possibility that they might actually be innocent.

Penn State has pursued both of these methods. It’s well-known that upon the initial accusations against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, virtually nothing was done. It’s also now been revealed that Penn State’s Board of Trustees, upon learning about the criminal investigation of Sandusky, sprang into action and…elected to continue the policy of doing nothing, as it had worked so very well up to that point. Indeed, it was only when the media storm hit with Sandusky’s arrest that they did something, firing Joe Paterno immediately. Then, just to show they meant business, they denied JoePa’s 80-something wife access to a Penn State pool. (Really.) Finally, they issued a memorandum to Penn State security guards reading: “Should you come upon Joe Paterno’s dog, kick it in the face. Go, Nittany Lions!”

I made up the last one. But whatever his moral failings, Joe Paterno has not been convicted of a crime. And he will apparently not be convicted of a crime, because he has not been charged with a crime, which is the first step in a conviction. And, for that matter, Jerry Sandusky hasn’t been convicted of a crime himself yet by an actual court, no matter how shifty he seems on camera. (And he does seem amazingly shifty: if a man could be tried purely on body language, Jerry would have started a life sentence weeks ago. Not to mention he gave his autobiography the there-is-surely-no-horrific-double-meaning-hidden-in-this title Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story — this is a man itching for prison time.)

I’m pretty confident something criminal happened, but I was certain those Duke lacrosse players were guilty of rape. (In case you have a short memory, they were not.) Prosecutors makes mistakes: sometimes honestly, sometimes as a result of deciding a conviction’s a conviction, even if you’re prosecuting someone innocent. (And remember, when you prosecute the innocent, you violate everything America stands for and, as a fun bonus, enable the guilty to get away with it.) Former New Orleans D.A. Harry Connick Sr. is a particular expert at this (read about one case here, in which his office willfully hid a blood sample proving a man’s innocence even as he sat on death row) — next time you listen to Harry Jr. crooning, ask yourself if the song sounds the same knowing his old man is Don King, only minus the hair and the high moral standards.

And in an age when the internet makes it possible for anyone to be part of the media but there’s less and less money for actual reporting so “news coverage” means “Here’s some crap I saw on a blog that I cut and pasted onto my blog”, it’s important to remember that justice can move too fast as well as too slow.

It is possible that we will discover more damning things about Joe Paterno during the trial of Jerry Sandusky. It is possible this scandal will not just taint his legacy, but overshadow it completely. But Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, the Syracuse assistant basketball coach similarly accused of sexual abuse (who, since being fired, has already had one accuser admit he lied about the whole thing), those Duke lacrosse players, and every other person, be they innocent or guilty, deserves due process. Before dispensing justice, Penn State’s Board of Trustees had a brief meeting behind closed doors, one they neglected to inform Paterno about until they phoned to tell him he was fired.

The firing may turn out to be justified — indeed, it very likely will — but based on the fact they knew and didn’t care about Sandusky until the press showed up, it’s hard to think anything other than these were panicky little people trying to overcompensate for their own failings. (I wonder if anyone in the secret meeting said, “Hey gang, we’re firing Paterno for knowing and not doing enough…when we knew and didn’t do anything. Shouldn’t we resign or something?” I bet that guy got a beating.)

Having buried Paterno, Penn State proceeded to pee on his grave. After a drawn-out search, Penn State announced the hiring of a new head coach: Bill O’Brien. It is, to put it mildly, an interesting choice. O’Brien has no head coaching experience. His main qualification is that he’s the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. Indeed, he is the third New England offensive coordinator to be snatched up for a head coaching job since 2004. The first two were Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels.

Despite Weis going into the college ranks with Notre Dame and McDaniels staying in the pros with the Denver Broncos, they turned out to have a similar coaching style, one that might best be described as arrogant off the field, incompetent on it. They burned enough bridges they might have lost their jobs even if they’d managed to win games. Fortunately, they did not: Weis led Notre Dame through the worst stretch in Fightin’ Irish history with a 16-21 record over his final three seasons (all the while bragging about how he’d blow some minds once he installed his “pro-style offense”) and McDaniels went 11-19 before he got the axe midway thru year two after it was revealed he had concealed that his team had been violating league rules by illegally taping opponents’ practices…all the while the New England Patriots continued to score at will, suggesting coaching is easier when you have Tom Brady throwing the ball and Bill Belichick looking over your shoulder.

Understandably, Penn State looked at this rich tradition of Patriot assistants and said, “Wait, there’s a third one of these guys? We’re booking a seat on this gravy train!”

Of course, O’Brien does have one big thing working in his factor: he has no connection to Penn State. (And, by extension, no link to Joe Paterno, since he’d been the head coach there since 1966.) Over the decades there have been hundreds and hundreds of players (and dozens and dozens of assistants) in no way connected with any of the abuse allegations who came to Penn State, won games, and graduated. (This may sound a small achievement, but any fan of college sports can tell you, the athlete who plays at an elite level and still consistently finds time for class is a rare beast.) Many of these alumni are outraged that Penn State now considers them at best irrelevant and at worst toxic when no one, not even Jerry Sandusky (who, it’s worth noting, stopped being an official part of the program in 1999), has yet been convicted.

I don’t blame them.

I should note I have decidedly mixed feelings about Joe Paterno. I think there’s much to admire about the man (how many coaches would use their own money to build their school a library?). On the other hand, he’s buds with Republican presidential candidate (and former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania) Rick Santorum, which for me is only a few steps above pulling a Rumsfeld and shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. Santorum is a devout Catholic and views his faith as a license to be cruelly judgmental of others, notably homosexuals; Paterno is also Catholic and presumably agrees with this, based on how supportive he’s been of the Santorum clan. (Religious disclosure: I also come from Catholic stock. And yes, I feel about this much the same way I feel about Joe Paterno.) Of course, the irony is that while attacking the wickedness of others, acts of true evil were occurring closer to home, with child abuse rampant within their beloved Catholic Church and, it appears, in the Penn State family as well.

(Side note: During John Paul II’s time as pope, child abuse in the Church was ubiquitous all over the globe. When confronted with these offenses, the Church tended to look the other way or, on a number of occasions, actively protected the priests, sometimes transferring them to other parishes where they could safely continue to molest children. For presiding over all this, John Paul II is — you guessed it — going to be rushed to sainthood in record-shattering time, with Pope Benedict making a point of waiving the five-year waiting period normally required after a candidate’s death. And suddenly being an Episcopalian seems less ridiculous…)

That said, the fact remains that in 1996, a security guard named Richard Jewell was named as the top suspect during the Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, as the FBI speculated that he placed the bomb himself so he could play hero. The media jumped on the lead and discovered it made perfect sense: after all, this guy was fat. And didn’t he live with his mom or something? Airtight case! Except it turned out he was not only innocent, but by spotting the suspicious package he had indeed saved dozens and dozens of lives. (Incidentally, Richard Jewell died at 44 of natural causes — sure the three months of constant public humiliation had no impact on this at all.)

And for a long time many people believed Ted Bundy to be innocent because no one so charming and handsome could be a serial killer.

The point is, the justice system works best when it moves steadily. The next time a scandal like this breaks, let’s hope the victims’ accusations are acted upon immediately, but also — no matter how heinous the crime — that everyone takes enough time that someone’s not only punished, but that we get the right person.

In conclusion, I suspect Joe Paterno got what he ultimately will deserve. But he got it much too soon and I think there are a lot of other people — looking at you, Penn State Board of Trustees — who warrant a much harsher fate.

Final musing: By his own account, Mike McQueary discovered Jerry Sandusky in the shower with an underage boy and was convinced there had been sexual contact between them. McQueary was already 27 at the time; he stands 6’4” and weighs over 200 pounds. Sandusky was approaching 60 and considerably smaller than that. McQueary responded to this situation by leaving both Sandusky and the boy, then telling Paterno about it THE NEXT DAY.

This still makes no sense to me.

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