"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno deserved every painful aspect of his firing.
He deserved the indignity of being fired over the phone. He deserved the humiliation of his firing taking place the week before he would have set the record for most games coached in a career. Most of all, he deserved the permanent tainting of his previously immaculate reputation.
Nothing changes the good Paterno has done, but when evaluating his legacy, the good he has done pales in comparison to his embarrassingly inexcusable inaction in response to the allegations against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
According to the grand jury's indictment against Sandusky, a graduate assistant, later revealed to be current receivers coach Mike McQueary walked in on Sandusky anally raping a boy, whom McQueary estimated to be 10 years old, in the Penn State locker room showers in 2002. McQueary then left the building and reported the incident to Paterno, who told Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley that McQueary had walked in on Sandusky "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy."
Curley and Penn State Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schulz interviewed McQueary about a week and a half later, according to the indictment. A couple of weeks later, Curley told McQueary the investigation was complete and Sandusky's keys to the locker room had been taken away. Police never interviewed McQueary, and the grand jury accused Curley and Schulz of not reporting the incident to authorities.
Police arrested Sandusky Nov. 5 on 40 charges of sexually abusing eight children. Schulz and Curley were charged with perjury for lying to the grand jury and failing to report suspected child abuse. Curley and Schulz stepped down from their positions at the school Nov. 7, and the university's board of trustees fired Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier Nov. 9 at approximately 10 p.m. Eastern time.
Penn State students responded by protesting in support of Paterno, overturning a news van, tearing down light poles and throwing rocks at police. State College police estimated 4,000 to 5,000 students were at the protest, according to an AP news release.
"The crowd initially was a peaceful demonstration against Coach Paterno's firing. The crowd quickly turned from a peaceful demonstration to a riotous mob," State College police said in a statement. "The mob attempted to light vehicles on fire, and tore down light posts and street signs."
Despite the allegations and strong evidence Paterno was told something severely inappropriate was occurring in his locker room showers, thousands of Penn State students showed up to support him. Any claim Paterno should still be employed by Penn State completely ignores his role in the cover-up of such a horrendous scandal. He may have fulfilled his legal obligations, but he fell far short of doing his moral duty.
When Curley and Schurz never reported the incident, Paterno could have easily gone to police and told them what McQueary claimed to have seen. Paterno's testimony would have been hearsay and it wouldn't have been enough to get Sandusky arrested, but it could have at least prompted an investigation that would have involved police questioning McQueary. Instead, Paterno never followed up on the issue.
It would have been one thing if Sandusky were accused of a lesser crime, such as doing drugs in his office, and Paterno didn't follow-up on it. It would have technically been wrong, but at least it would have been somewhat understandable. When it comes to an allegation as serious as sexual misconduct with a child, it's a whole different story. Paterno's testimony was ambiguous in regards to how graphically McQueary described the shower incident but was very clear in regards to Paterno's awareness that something of a sexual nature allegedly occurred in the shower.
As Tennessee Titans coach and former Penn State offensive lineman Mike Munchak said, "(Paterno) is ultimately responsible for anything that happens while he's the head coach there, and so he knows he has a lot of responsibility in this."
Despite Paterno's failure to follow through and get to the bottom of the allegations, he has still received overwhelming support from his fans, as evidenced by the size of the protest at Penn State. Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was labeled a liar and a cheat for hiding his knowledge that players were receiving tattoos and marijuana in exchange for memorabilia, yet students rallied in the thousands to show support for Paterno after he was fired for not reporting allegations of sexual abuse in his locker room showers.
Paterno has won more college football games than any other coach in the history of the game and is arguably the best college football coach of all time. As a result, he receives far more support than any other coach would have received if such a scandal had occurred at a school with a midlevel athletics program and a no-name football coach.
It is a damning indictment of our society's priorities when the number of wins a man has accumulated as a football coach takes precedence over his role in allowing an accused pedophile to have continued access to children.
Let's be honest with ourselves. Those defending Paterno aren't doing it because they legitimately believe he did nothing wrong. They just don't care.
Paterno's supporters are blinded by myth of "JoePa," a lovable, harmless old man who is the symbol of everything right in a college sports landscape increasingly filled with wrongdoing. As Paterno's career has grown, he has become a warm and fuzzy character in a media-fueled feel-good narrative.
The narrative has become so ingrained in our psyche that it is easier to simply ignore any evidence that doesn't fit our preconceived notion of who Paterno is. He has been portrayed as a kindly beacon of morality, and it's more convenient to ignore any new information that contrasts with that portrayal.
Plenty has to be resolved in the Sandusky case, but Paterno's culpability is already apparent when the situation is examined with the "JoePa" myth aside. He received allegations of a disgusting and unforgivable crime, and instead of pursuing them aggressively he merely passed the buck.
Needless to say, criticizing Paterno should not be confused for neglecting to blame the multitude of other people who should have reported what they had been told. The Penn State scandal is a complete systematic failure. From McQueary to Curley to Schulz to Paterno, multiple people failed to report what was happening. Of course, if guilty Sandusky himself did far worse than what any of his enablers did.
Sandusky hasn't been as heavily debated as Paterno himself has, but the lack of debate isn't due to people losing focus of Sandusky's role in the controversy. A nationwide debate about Sandusky isn't happening because there's nothing to debate about him. Anyone with the slightest shred of decency knows what he's accused of is beyond horrific. The discussion is revolving around Paterno because some cling to the "JoePa" myth and defend him in the face of revelations that the stranger they worshipped created an environment that made it safe for an alleged pedophile to continue to have access to children.
At the end of the day, that's what's important -- not Paterno or the football, but the children who were allegedly hurt by Paterno's proven inaction. The most chillingly true words about the Penn State scandal were spoken on television by ESPN anchor Matt Millen, a former Penn State linebacker, last week.
"This is more than just a program," Millen said. "This is more than a football legacy. This is about people. And if we can't protect our kids, we as a society are pathetic."
And if we care more about our football legends than protecting our kids, we as a society are even more pathetic.