Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Innocent Until Proven Proximate

The name "JoePa" used to evoke feelings of warmth and nostalgia, almost of filial affection for the man who stood as the grandfather figure for all college athletics. Now, it seems to warrant nothing but scorn. Consider one particularly heinous example from Dan Bernstein, a writer for CBS Chicago. Upon reading a letter of support for Penn State and Paterno signed by hundreds of former Penn State athletes, Bernstein had this interpretation of their motives: "Apparently because you don’t mind child-rape. And because Paterno is almost dead, thankfully." Fortunately, there are still some who are willing to take a more reasoned approach to examining the Penn State scandal, Paterno's role in it, and the coach's legacy to the university and the sport now that, having turned 85, he is plagued by more trivial matters like pelvic fractures and cancer. Even better, there appears to be evidence to support a more measured assessment of JoePa's "guilt." Thomas L. Day--a graduate of 2003 Penn State University, a native of State College, Pa., and a former student and volunteer in the Second Mile program--is by no means a JoePa fanatic, but he thinks it is important to get one thing straight:

Read these words carefully: Joe Paterno, in March of 2002, after being told by a graduate assistant coach that he had witnessed longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky allegedly raping a young boy in the football team's facility the night before, notified the police. In fact, Paterno discussed what he learned with the man, Gary Schultz, who had administrative control of the Penn State police.

The point people are missing is that the Penn State police are different than most campus police forces. They are a real police force. They carry guns. They aren't rent-a-cops. They have jurisdiction over the campus, which includes the Penn State football offices.

In 1953, Penn State President Milton Eisenhower (brother of Dwight D.) changed the name of the campus to "University Park," and created a separate unincorporated community within the campus. When Paterno notified Schultz of what he had been told, he was notifying an appropriate authority.

Day's article is not the kind of unqualified exoneration that one might expect from a JoePa devotee. Day believes that Paterno should have been fired--not because he did anything wrong but because, in spite of doing things right, other people nearby did bad things. That is, of course, my less-than-detached restatement of his argument. Day preferred to word it like this: "When something goes horribly wrong under the purview of leaders, the leaders should be held accountable, even though they may not be directly at fault. This is something many Penn Staters have failed to understand." Maybe, like myself, "Penn Staters" have a funny aversion to the innocent being punished for the crimes of the guilty. Or maybe they have grave objections to the way the desperate, scrambling, self-conscious powers-that-be decided to execute (and that word is so pointedly appropriate) their plan to rid themselves of JoePa, or to the low, personal PR potshots that have been taken, such as removing his name from the Big Ten trophy or refusing to sell JoePa merchandise in campus stores. Regardless, Day does make a point to give a balanced assessment of what actually happened (as far as we know) and to evaluate Paterno's behavior with a more measured demeanor than, for example, Jemele Hill. Wrote Day:

The truth is that there isn't much more Joe Paterno could have done to prevent the alleged assaults that happened after March of 2002. I have no doubt that there are points along the eight-year timeline of this scandal where Paterno could have, and should have, acted differently -- Paterno himself has acknowledged as such. But nobody bats 1.000 in these situations...

The question is did Joe Paterno act in good faith, especially in March of 2002? Yes, Joe Paterno did. Paterno's actions were generally in line with how most reasonable people would act if put in the same situation. Paterno could not have made a citizen's arrest. At some point in 2002, Paterno was likely told that there would be no further action against Sandusky; after that point, Paterno appears to have ended association with his longtime friend and assistant.

So why the far flung institutional, media, and public pillorying of a man who six months ago received nothing but universal quasi-religious reverence from all of the above? Day asks the same question to conclude his article: "Before we say goodbye to Paterno, let's rationally reassess his legacy, and explore why exactly we rushed to an uninformed judgment of this man." For my part, I hope we reassess quickly, or else we may not have time, as a society, to apologize to the cancer-ridden octogenarian for stripping everything away from him--his career, his legacy, and, most importantly, a national love and respect--all, it would appear, because he is guilty by mere proximity to a crime.

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