Paterno’s legacy is not the real issue today

The story is not Joe Paterno. The story is not his abruptly announced retirement Wednesday – or the raging debate over whether he should coach the remaining games this season. When a scandal erupts, the American way is always to howl for a scalp.

But the scalp here is not Paterno’s.

The scalp – if the charges are true – belongs first, second and third to Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator now facing multiple counts of sexual abuse with eight boys over 15 years. Groping them. Molesting them. Doing unmentionable things in the showers. All while operating an organization created to help needy kids.

Sandusky is the story. Sandusky – and the victims. Many of them are young men now. They face a lifetime of nightmares and issues with intimacy and trust. Read any book about it. Ask any expert. The damager may have gone away. The damage never does.

We should not lose sight of this in a rush to crush the biggest name in the paragraph. Paterno, 84, absolutely should have done more – he basically said so in his retirement statement – but for now, the focus should be Sandusky. He’s the devil in these details.

He’s just not as famous as JoePa.

Coach clearly should have done more

And so headlines scream, “What did Joe know?” and “Should Joe Go?” – as if his dismissal at Penn State today or next month is the core of the issue.

It’s never that simple. I have interviewed Paterno over the years. I believe he is all the things he’s purported to be – disciplined, principled, fiercely devoted to his players and his school. All he has done in 46 seasons as Penn State’s head coach is not wiped out by what he did not do with Sandusky. Every kid whose life he helped is not erased by the eight kids he did not.

Life is not a math equation. You can be a good man who did an inexcusable thing, and an inexcusable man who does one great act.

In this case, the inexcusable is Paterno’s inaction. While we do not know how much he knew – and until we do, it’s a rush to judgment – we do know this much: He was told about Sandusky in the showers of the football building with a grade-schooler back in 2002.

And while it may have been described as “horseplay” to Paterno, what kind of horseplay takes place between a man and a boy of those ages?

Sexual abuse was not a secret in 2002. A more concerned Paterno would have gone beyond telling his athletic director – even though Sandusky, at the time, was no longer on the Penn State staff. Do I believe Paterno could have been so wrapped up in his program that he didn’t know much more? Maybe. But all he had to do was push the issue. Pull Sandusky aside. Say, “Tell me everything.” Then go to the authorities if there is a shred of doubt.

Paterno and other Penn State officials instead kept it internal, a sadly common practice in big-time college football and other places, including religious institutions. They weighed the potential damage and chose benign neglect.

But there is nothing benign in abuse.

Coach should not call shots in Happy Valley

“This is a tragedy,” Paterno said in his statement. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.

“My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination.”

Dignity, in Happy Valley, is a past tense word right now. And critics are not wrong when they say Paterno is still trying to call his own shot – finish out a winning season, then retire. It will be surreal – perhaps insulting – seeing him run out with his team in Beaver Stadium this Saturday against Nebraska.

But let’s not lose the focus. Even if Paterno were dismissed today, Sandusky’s alleged sins are no less vile. And those poor young men are no less damaged.

So if we need a national discussion, let’s talk about what makes a child molester, the signs, the potential safeguards, and how do sports with their locker rooms and intimate camaraderie foster potential abuse?

It may make us feel better to turn the hot light on Paterno. But making him the story is, in a weird way, doing a bit of what critics are assailing: allowing the football program to overshadow a tragedy that takes place every day in this country and must be stopped.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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