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Palladino: Any Way You Look At It, Joe Paterno Simply Never Got It

By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

If the past couple of days taught us anything, it was that Penn State football coach and campus deity Joe Paterno never did get it.

He never got that in this day and age, when somebody hears the words sex and kids in the same sentence, someone's antenna should go up. He never got that the welfare of children lands far above protecting the glories of a football program and its players and coaches on the list of social responsibilities.

We know this from the 24 hours that spanned the Paterno family's Wednesday morning release of a letter that Joe Pa wrote defending his program, to Thursday morning when former FBI director Louis Freeh released the results of his investigation into the Penn State sex scandal.

Freeh's report confirmed through more than 260 pages of compelling evidence what we all pretty much knew in the first place -- that university officials -- from the president down to head football coach Joe Paterno -- had engaged in a coverup of Jerry Sandusky's heinous abuse of young boys.

It's Paterno's writing that is most troubling. Produced just a few weeks before his death and sent by the family Wednesday to Nittany Lions past and present, Paterno claimed that the program he built into a perennial national power should not be tarnished a bit by the scandal.

"I feel compelled to say, in no uncertain terms, that this is not a football scandal," Paterno penned.

He continued, "…the fact is nothing alleged is an indictment of football or evidence that the spectacular collections of accomplishments by dedicated student athletes should in any way be tarnished. Yet, over and over again, I have heard Penn State officials decrying the influence of football, and have heard such ignorant comments like 'Penn State will no longer be a football factory, and 'We are going to start focusing on integrity in athletics.'"

Nope. He didn't get it.

He didn't get it in 1998, when the rumors of his former defensive coordinator's activities first surfaced around the Penn State campus. He didn't get it in 2001, when Mike McQueary talked of hearing a skin-on-skin sound coming from the shower.

He didn't get it as he took his last breath Jan. 22.

This wasn't just about the football program. It was all about the football program. More specifically, the football-above-all culture engendered among those that should have known better.

Nobody ever blamed the players. Nobody ever accused a player of knowing something and keeping his mouth shut. And surely, they deserve all the glory for those national titles and winning seasons.

And that is all completely beside the point. Had football and its God-like leader Paterno held a proper place among Penn State's hierarchy, you bet that they all would have handled Sandusky differently.

They would have run him in to the cops.

Instead, as Freeh's report confirmed, "Four of the most powerful people at the Pennsylvania State University -- president Graham B. Spanier, senior vice president of finance and business Gary C. Schultz, athletic director Timothy M. Curley and head football coach Joseph V. Paterno -- failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustees, the university community and the authorities."

They did it to protect the reputation of a big-money program.

They did it to protect Paterno's legacy.

Their collective actions were unconscionable.

As for Paterno's pathetic claim of absolution, the kindest thing we can say is that they are simply the words of an old man of another, more silent era -- where no one talked about sexual predators, where the victims were told to buck up and get on with their lives.

A more malicious view would regard the letter as a last, cynical attempt to preserve his legend.

Either way, Paterno didn't get it.

The football program created a safe cocoon for Sandusky's deviance to thrive. Paterno was the head of that program.

The dirt and shame cover everyone in Happy Valley. Especially Paterno, an ultimately shameless man who went to his grave with his head held high.

He just never got it.

Let us know what you think Joe Pa's legacy should be -- and ultimately will be -- in the comments section below...

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