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Keidel: Joe Paterno's Fatal Flaw

By Jason Keidel
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Back in the 1990s I had a friend whose father, I later learned, had an inappropriate interest in children. After trolling the Internet, he found a child in a chat room. After a day of dialogue, he made online arrangements to meet the child at a hotel for a sexual encounter. When he arrived at the hotel, an FBI agent was waiting for him. The father was snagged in a sting where agents were posing as kids, luring predators.

My friend moved shortly thereafter and we lost contact, so I don't know how things ended. I didn't think about the father because we know such people exist, at least in the abstract. We have vague connections to evil, via classrooms, books, and films. But I thought about my friend, and how he would view his dad after discovering the disgusting impulses pulsing through his own flesh and blood.

Suffice it to say that the father-son bond is far more profound than anything Jerry Sandusky had with Penn State coaches, particularly Joe Paterno.

In most cases, the more we learn about something, the clearer we are. Not with Penn State, where this sickening spool unravels, revealing more lies and subterfuge. It seems every bottom has trap doors.

So I wonder what compels any peripheral player, from Mike McQueary up the food chain, to keep this nauseating secret. McQueary is in full spin mode, texting and emailing his innocence, asserting that he "stopped" Sandusky's assault on that child in that shower. Yet the police say nary a word was heard from McQueary in 2002.

The obvious answer is that lesser mortals were petrified of Paterno, who was protecting the school, himself, or both. But could he think that concealing child rape on his turf was protecting anything? Is power that intoxicating? Have his morals mutated so drastically that he could only see Saturdays through his thick glasses?

Paterno, who expressed such eagerness to address this matter with the media, has lawyer-ed up, and shifted assets to his wife in a preemptive strike against civil suits. The next time we hear from "JoePa" (it makes me sick to spout that nickname, even sardonically) will be on the witness stand.

If Paterno has nothing to hide, why is he hiding? Why isn't he as publicly and privately outraged as the rest of us? Why does he wish he'd done more if nothing happened? Why isn't he perched under one of those advocacy tents dishing out child abuse pamphlets?

It reminds me of a scene from the film, "Glengarry Glenn Ross," when Alan Arkin told Al Pacino that he didn't know what to tell the police after the office they shared was robbed. "Tell them the truth," Pacino said. "It's the easiest thing to remember." Paterno can't remember the truth because he can't remember the last time he lived in it.

And don't you look at interim coach Tom Bradley with at least a suspicious eye? Bradley has been with the school since 1979, and, frankly, I see him as part of the problem. During his press conference last week, a stiff Bradley answered every question about the scandal with a stern non sequitur. "I'm focused on Ohio State," he repeated, seemingly indignant that we dare ask about the biggest sports scandal in American history. After losing to Nebraska, Bradley, said he sensed that healing began. Mr. Bradley is delusional, and his bags should be packed the moment the football season ends, assuming the feds don't find him more nefarious.

But Penn State is now investigating the matter, and will hold a press conference today to discuss their progress, insulting our intelligence for the nth time. And no, this story isn't old or over because two weeks have passed since it broke, not even close.

If head coaches and assistant coaches, from Barry Switzer to Matt Paknis, are correct, then everyone on Penn State's coaching staff knew Sandusky ran far afoul of the law, even if they didn't have all details. That would include the current coach, Bradley. Sports Illustrated reported that word even seeped into local barbershop. But we're supposed to believe that the police, Paterno, and Penn State were shocked by the news.

If the stench of these crimes wafted through stores and scores of other local commerce, how can we ever believe that the school and city's czar (Paterno) didn't? And how can so many people know and so few act? A local high school blew the whistle on Sandusky, not Penn State, not Paterno. Is it possible that Paterno was so powerful that he could suppress his staff, his campus, college and police? Can one man do this?

If he can, why would he? By all accounts, the relationship between Paterno and his defensive coordinator was strained at best. Former graduate assistant Paknis told Mike Francesa that Sandusky said he hated Paterno. Let's assume that the feeling is mutual, and that Paknis's portrait of Paterno is complete, that Paterno was so swathed in self-interest, his narcissism so thorough, that he only cared about his own career and image. It would have served himself to stop the madness, even made him a savior to intrude on those sick interludes.

Since Paterno's secret handle is "The Rat" why not perpetuate the pathology by snitching on Sandusky? Indeed, calling out a child predator would only enhance Paterno's paternal reputation as the vanguard of veracity, austerity and adolescents. And it would have spared countless kids from the talons of Jerry Sandusky. No doubt the school would take a hit, but it would have been brief compared to the toxic metaphysical fence that surrounds State College now, perhaps for the next decade. Perhaps longer. How many moms of 18-year-old football studs are thinking, son, I really see you in a Penn State uniform?

Wouldn't we be naïve to assume it started in 1998? Or 1994? A doctor called Mike Francesa and said child molesters begin their assault on youngsters "as soon as they can." Sandusky became Paterno's defensive coordinator in 1977 (when he also started the charity he used as a funnel to find fragile kids). So, based on the good doctor's depiction, wouldn't the abuse have started back then?

The Penn State story makes any sane mammal sick. But we must watch. And it's not the proverbial car wreck, spiritual rubbernecking, or voyeurism. It's so incongruous when you consider what happened and who allowed it to happen. We can't comprehend this. Maybe we can comprehend this together.

When we think – at least when I think – of the rare monolith like Paterno, an autocrat of a college football fiefdom, an image of cloaking minor transgressions comes to mind. Perhaps a booster slips an envelope under the table to a prized recruit and the coach keeps it hushed. Maybe even a star's parents get free rent for a few years. All of that falls under the morally vague and misguided bylaws of the NCAA. Many of us think players should be paid, anyway. But not this. The Brand can't shield child rape.

The Costas interview only made it worse, filled with euphemisms like "horsing around." Sandusky's soliloquy after a simple question – are you sexually attracted to young boys? – told us all we needed to know.

And now sports dignitaries have chimed in, looking downright dumb in the process. Coach K, whom I respect endlessly, tried to play the age card. "You've gotta understand," said the iconic coach, "Coach Paterno is 84…" Meaning what? Child rape was okay in Paterno's day? Paterno has gone from lucid librarian to senile, stumbling mummy rather quickly. But he wasn't 84 in 2002, 1998, or 1977.

Franco Harris, a Penn State alum and one of the dynastic Steelers I worshipped as a child, added to the semantic sewage by defending Paterno. And countless accounts from folks who attended the Nebraska contest said myriad vigils were planted inside and outside the stadium in Paterno's honor. And we've seen footage of fools kneeling outside the disgraced coach's house, praying for, well, whatever.

If you can't express sympathy for the abused children, anger at the abuser, or indignity toward those who protected this monster, shut up. We're trying to understand this.

Paterno will engender sympathy now that he's been diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer. Yet the cancer on his campus was left untreated for decades, while he was the head doctor.

Feel free to email me:

Your thoughts on JoePa and the Penn State scandal? Be heard in the comments below...


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