Freeh Report Indicts Paterno and Penn State Community

In light of the Freeh report released on Thursday, Penn State has little choice but to take action on a number of fronts. The independent investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh found that former president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley, former vice president Gary Schultz, and former head coach Joe Paterno all had reasons to suspect that convicted child molester Gary Sandusky was abusing children on the Penn State campus.

Penn State

Former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno addresses the crowd after becoming the first NCAA football coach to win 400 games, as former athletic director Tim Curley and former university president Graham Spanier look on.

In effect, the entire university leadership has been held liable for the crimes committed by Sandusky.

One area of action that might seem superficial to outsiders but holds considerable importance to the campus community is what to do with coach Joe Paterno’s statue on campus. The best answer would be to leave the statue and add a dedication that reads: “In memory of the children we failed to protect.”

This is not the time to wipe the slate clean, but a time to admit with bare-boned honesty the fallibility of men and an institution that allowed children to be raped over the course of a decade in the name of misplaced loyalty and friendship. The report pulls no punches in stating that all four men acted “to conceal Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University, and the authorities.” While Spanier, Curley, and Schultz appear to face legal consequences, Paterno’s passing earlier this year leaves only his legacy at stake.

While that might seem trite in light of what transpired, Paterno’s immense legacy should contribute as much as possible to those who survived Sandusky’s brutality. The Lasch Building, the headquarters of Penn State football, appear so often in the report that it begins to read like Auschwitz. No doubt Penn State understands legacy enough to rename the building once the dust settles.

Yet Paterno cannot be renamed. Nor should he be erased. He must be remembered, but not to preserve his legacy as a great coach, nor to spare the university community that still holds its football program in such reverence that many still cannot accept the role of “JoePa” in this tragedy, a reverence so ingrained in the school’s culture that the Freeh reports calls it out as a contributing factor in the cover-up.

Rather, Paterno’s good deeds and his ultimate moral failures should remain a fixture on campus to mirror the greatness of the university, both its towering successes and its devastating failures. Each member of the community should shoulder those personal successes and failures, not pick and choose between them.

Paterno’s failures arose from a very human place, one of faith in friends. Most people at some point succumb to such failings by placing too much trust in the wrong hands. Nevertheless, we are each ultimately responsible for the consequences of those failings. Paterno failed the university, himself, his friend, and those children. Why he believed in a close companion may have been understandable, but that does not make it acceptable.

Should the university community choose to honor only the good in Paterno’s legacy and neglect the brutal crimes to which he served as accomplice, that failing would be just as human as it would be grievously wrong and sinister.  

The tendency by the Penn State community to view this in football terms comes from that same reverence the Freeh report cites: the idea that at the end of his life, just like in a big game, Paterno ran out the clock with only a few late penalty flags to mar the win. The community would like only the final score to matter, but this was not a game and when Paterno’s final quarter ended lives had been sacrificed.

When it comes to crimes like sexual assault and child abuse, communities long for a monster: a witch, a boogeyman, a serial killer. Yet for every John Gacy, there are a dozen Sanduskys, who can only operate with the approval of enablers — the Paternos, the Curleys, the Schultzes, and the Spaniers.

And those enablers can only persist if the community allows them to persist. So let Paterno’s legacy stand, but let that legacy be tempered with a reminder of the children the community chose not to protect.

Michael Trice has 15 years of experience working in the fields of technology, publishing, and communication for universities and Fortune 500 companies. In 2009, he worked at the Centre for Digital Citizenship in Leeds, England, as a Fulbright scholar to the United Kingdom. Michael’s thoughts on social media have been published in “Writing and the Digital Generation” and “The Ethics of Emerging Media.”