Punishing Paterno

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Category: Public, Sports & Law

For the past several days, sports journalists, the callers to sports talk radio shows, and just about everyone else has weighed in on the appropriate way to punish Penn State for its failure to disclose the sexual crimes of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

As the report prepared by former FBI director Louis Freeh makes clear, the late Joe Paterno, the long-time head coach of the Nittany Lions, was aware of Sandusky’s crimes, at least since 1998, and took numerous steps to prevent them from coming to light. Paterno passed away shortly after he was fired last fall when the enormity of Sandusky’s crimes was finally brought to light.

The current debate revolves around the appropriate penalty for Penn State for the misfeasance of Paterno and other university officials. Much of discussion has involved the question of whether or not Penn State is an appropriate candidate for the NCAA “death penalty,” i.e., the elimination of its football program for a period of years. Technically, this penalty is available only for schools that were already on NCAA probation, which Penn State was not; moreover, as the Journal Sentinel’s Michael Hunt  and others have pointed out, draconian prospective punishments would most directly harm current players and new coach Bill O’Brien and his staff, none of whom were in any way responsible for the scandal.

I would like to propose the following as an appropriate punishment:

(1) Require Penn State to forfeit all its football victories since 1998 (or whenever Joe Paterno first learned of Sandusky’s crimes and decided not to report them). This would have the effect of removing Paterno’s name from the top of the list of college football coaches with the greatest number of victories. No longer would his name be in any way associated with the concept of coaching excellence, and it would be a meaningful punishment, especially for someone who is already dead.

(2) Require Paterno’s family to repay the more than $5 million dollar “retirement package” that Paterno negotiated while he was knowingly covering up Sandusky’s transgressions. The idea that the university is contractually obligated to make such payments is absurd, as is the idea that it would have agreed to such an arrangement had Paterno revealed that he had been covering up the heinous crimes of his pederast pal for more than a decade. The money can be used to support the victims of Sandusky’s crimes and Paterno’s indifference.

(3) Tear down the statue of Paterno that sits outside Beaver Stadium, the Penn State football field. If Paterno’s supporters in positions of power refuse to do so, then perhaps the good people of State College, Pennsylvania, will be inspired by the example of the residents of New York City in 1776, who on their own and in defiance of formal authority toppled the equestrian statue of King George III on Bowling Green and melted it down into slag.


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11 Responses to “Punishing Paterno”

  1. Nkozi Knight Says:

    Although I agree with most of what you have written, I do not agree of a punishment that removes victories from the school retroactively to 1998 for the following reasons:

    (1) Removing victories not only penalizes Joe Paterno’s legacy, but also impacts the alumni of the school, most importantly the student athletes who had nothing to do with what happened.

    (2) The community tied to the university benefits from the Penn State moniker and would be economically impacted from such an action as removing victories.

    The fact that he received such a retirement package knowing that he was involved with this situation is beyond me and I agree that every penny should be returned plus interest.

    I believe Joe Paterno was culpable in the cover-up just as much as everyone else because he had ample opportunity to report Sandusky especially after the infamous ‘shower incident’. To allow Sandusky bring additional children onto the campus is a crime against not only those kids but humanity as a whole.

    Yes the statue must also go.

  2. Sonya Bice Says:

    Thank you. “Contracts are contracts” indeed.

  3. Jane Casper Says:

    My hope is that the energy and focus of Penn State officials are spent on ensuring that the child abuse and subsequent cover-up never happen again. Who cares if the statue comes down if nothing changes within the culture of Penn State?

  4. Bryan Ward Says:

    Excellent point, Dean Casper. It seems to me that a rush to remove a statue and disavow Joe Paterno would be, at least in part, an attempt to remove horrible thoughts and memories from the Penn State and public consciousness. The gruesome truth is that such acts occur frequently, and in all environments, and the comfortable assumption that an aura of safety surrounds universities, churches, and the family home, creates fertile ground upon which predators can operate. In a sense, the unwillingness to believe in, to acknowledge, or to confront the existence of such abuse is what got Paterno and Penn State where they are today. I would much rather see a memorial to the abuse victims placed next to the Paterno statue as a constant reminder, than see the statue torn down, and the scene of the crime wiped clean.

  5. While one cannot deny that Paterno was one of the best college football coaches to every live, what he did, or more importantly did not do in regards to the Sandusky trial will forever tarnish his legacy. I find it sad but I cannot disagree with that fact that it should tarnish it.

  6. Today, I saw news that students at Penn State have set up an around-the-clock camp to guard Paterno’s statue to “protect” it from being torn done. (Stories here and here.) Reminds me of November 10, 2011, when Penn State students rioted objecting to Paterno’s firing. One student cited in a New York Times article at the time of the firing believed Paterno had met his legal and moral responsibilities regarding the accusations by reporting them to university officials. We now know more after the Freeh investigation, yet students seem to remain entrenched in their beliefs that “Joe Pa” has a legacy worth protecting. Such beliefs minimize the trauma and abuse a number of children suffered because of Sandusky. I sure hope the statue comes down and, as Dean Casper noted, attitudes change.

  7. Joseph Hylton Says:

    For what it is worth, my suggestion that Penn State be required to forfeit games won during the period of Paterno’s cover up of Sandusky’s criminal conduct has been endorsed by the editors of the Sports Law Blog.

    Also, with the support of Mayor Edward Jones, a similar request has been filed with the NCAA Infractions Committee by Pamela Breedlove, the city attorney for Grambling, Louisiana. Grambling is the home city of Grambling State University, whose former football coach Eddie Robinson ranks second to Paterno in terms of all-time victories.

    According to the Washington Post, the NCAA has acknowledged receipt of the Breedlove letter, but a spokesman for the organization stated that the issue was not currently before the Infractions Committee.

  8. Joseph Hylton Says:

    For the record, from the beginning of the 1998 season until his firing with two games to go in the 2011 season, Joe Paterno-coached teams at Penn State won 111 games.

    If these games are counted, Paterno is the winningest coach in the history of Division I college football (and its historical equivalents). If the games are subtracted, his number of coaching victories would drop to 308, which would rank 6th all-time.

    Coaches “passing” Paterno if the games are forfeited would be Eddie Robinson, Bobby Bowden, Pop Warner, Bear Bryant, and Amos Alonzo Stagg.

    All of these men had their shortcomings, but none was ever involved in a matter as tawdry or as morally heinous as the Sandusky cover-up.

  9. Steve Nelson Says:

    Ta-Nahesi Coates in the NYT makes an interesting point about trying to clean history:
    “The need to clean history so that the record might reflect our current values, and not our sordid past, is broad. In Columbia, S.C., there stands a statue of Ben Tillman, the populist South Carolina senator who helped found Clemson University and, in his spare time, defended lynching from his august national offices. For years there have been calls to remove Tillman’s statue, emanating from those who think it a shame to continue to honor him. But in a democracy, memorial statues are not simply comments on their subjects, but comments on their makers. That Americans once saw fit to honor a man who defended terrorism from the Senate floor is a powerful statement about our identity and history.”

    The statue should stay and remind everyone who passes that there was time when Penn State stood by rapists and enablers and not the victims.

  10. Gary Werkheiser Says:

    I see that your commentary was written on July 16, just days after the Freeh report was issued. Perhaps you didn’t read the entire report, and just focused on the conclusions and the press release that accompanied it. I would expect better from someone at a law school.

    You say “As the report prepared by former FBI director Louis Freeh makes clear, the late Joe Paterno, the long-time head coach of the Nittany Lions, was aware of Sandusky’s crimes, at least since 1998, and took numerous steps to prevent them from coming to light.” Please show were it is “clear” that Joe Paterno was aware of Sandusky’s “crimes, at least since 1998.” There is just NO evidence in the report that substantiates that. The only evidence presented that Paterno knew ANYTHING about the 1998 incident are 2 emails from Tim Curley to Gary Schultz referencing coach, and “coach” may not even refer to Paterno. THAT’S IT, that’s the entire evidence that Joe Paterno knew anything about this incident.

    Also, this incident was fully investigated by the police, the local district attorney, county child welfare and state department of welfare, WITHOUT INTERFERENCE BY OFFICIALS AT PENN STATE. The result of these investigations, by the appropriate authorities who should handle such cases, was that NO CHARGES WERE FILED. So what crimes were committed here?

    Remember, we should not judge the actions by Paterno and others based on the information that we know now, information obtained by a 2+ year state Grand Jury investigation. We should evaluate them based on what was known at the time in 1998 and in 2001.

    One last point: the Freeh investigation failed to interview most of the key parties in this situation (Paterno, Mike McQueary, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, Police Chief Harmon, the district attorney, etc.). Freeh made grand assumptions, especially about Tim Curley and any conversation he may have had with Paterno, with ever speaking to Curley. I think that if this report were presented in a court of law, it would be thrown out.

    Your quick acceptance of the conclusions and assumptions in the Freeh report are quite troubling. Perhaps you should take a closer look at the evidence (or lack thereof) in the report.


    Gary Werkheiser
    Penn State – 1981

  11. Joseph Hylton Says:

    My comments on Mr. Werkheiser’s observations can be found in the post “Punishing Paterno, Part II” found elsewhere on this blog.

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