Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight delivered quite a broadside to the Penn State board of trustees on Jan. 26 during the memorial service for Joe Paterno.
As evidenced by the thunderous reaction, his comments provided a salve to mourners, but when viewed unemotionally, his words were misleading at best. Worse, they will further an outpouring of hatred toward members of the board, some of whom now fear for their safety given the climate that surrounds the case.
Knight said that for the last 12 years he'd regarded Paterno as his hero. "In the 12 years since... never once did he let me down. Not one time," Knight said.
Spurred by the ovation, he continued:
Conventional wisdom dictates that I would phrase it a different way. It would say in 11 of those 12 years he never let me down and those years outweighed this last year, but nobody ever accused me of wisdom of any kind, let alone conventional.
Knight then referred to 2002, when Paterno was told about an alleged attack on a boy by former coach Jerry Sandusky:
In the year in question, he gave full disclosure to his superiors up the chain to the head of campus police and president of the school. The matter was in the hands of a world-class university and by a president with an outstanding national reputation. Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me: If there was a villain in this tragedy it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response to it.
That drew a standing ovation.
He said that for his "actions," Paterno was "excoriated by the media and fired over the telephone by his university." Knight then asked rhetorically, "Who is the real trustee at Pennsylvania State University?"
To the extent Knight was suggesting that Paterno was the "real trustee," his confidence was sadly misplaced. His eulogy, which was devoid of any mention of the alleged victims in this scandal, overlooked testimony provided under oath by Paterno to the grand jury. There, the longtime coach acknowledged awareness of what Mike McQueary reported seeing between Sandusky and a young boy in 2002. This is from his responses while testifying before the grand jury:
Q: Without getting into any graphic detail, what did Mr. McQueary tell you he had seen and where?
A: Well, he had seen a person, an older -- not an older, but a mature person who was fondling, whatever you might call it -- I'm not sure what the term would be -- a young boy.
Q: Did he identify who that older person was?
A: Yes, a man by the name of Jerry Sandusky who had been one of our coaches, was not at the time.
There was then an important follow-up:
Q: I think you used the term fondling. Is that the term that you used?
A: Well, I don't know what you would call it. Obviously, he was doing something with the youngster. It was a sexual nature. I'm not sure exactly what it was.
McQueary should have called the police. He didn't. The following morning he turned to Paterno, who then should have called the police. Instead, Paterno reported what he'd been told by McQueary to athletic director Tim Curley and school administrator Gary Schultz.
Did that discharge Paterno's legal duty? Yes. His moral duty? Absolutely not. This was not the theft of a toner cartridge. He should have followed up to make sure the matter was thoroughly investigated. Had a phone call been made to off-campus police by McQueary or Paterno, years of abuse of young boys might have been avoided.
In his eulogy, Knight also conveniently reduced the time frame at issue. Any proper evaluation of Paterno's role in the scandal goes back to at least 1998. That's when a boy reported to his mother that he'd showered with Sandusky, giving rise to a criminal investigation. Although the case was not prosecuted, investigators eavesdropped as the mother confronted Sandusky, who reportedly said, "I wish I were dead."
What came the following year? Sandusky's "retirement."
But what kind of retirement was it? Published accounts indicate that, between 1998 and 1999, Sandusky sought to institute a football program at Penn State's Altoona campus, and later, he interviewed for a head coaching position at the University of Virginia. What does it say about his desire to leave coaching that he volunteered in a high school program and then sought to do likewise at tiny Juniata College?
All of this raises the question of whether Sandusky was permitted a quiet exit from Penn State, and if so, whether Paterno knew the full picture? Schultz testified to the grand jury that he was aware of the 1998 investigation. Did he tell Paterno? Paterno told the Washington Post "I had never heard a thing" about prior bad behavior by Sandusky. He told the grand jury something different:
Q: Other than the incident that Mike McQueary reported to you, do you know in any way, through rumor, direct knowledge, or any other fashion, of any other inappropriate sexual conduct by Jerry Sandusky with young boys?
A: I do not know of anything else that Jerry would be involved in of that nature, no. I do not know of it. You did mention -- I think you said something about a rumor. It may have been discussed in my presence, something else about somebody. I don't know. I don't remember, and I could not honestly say I heard a rumor.
Which was it? The certainty of "I had never heard a thing" or the sworn testimony of "It may have been discussed in my presence"? What exactly did Paterno mean when he said "it may have been discussed in my presence, something about somebody." One possible interpretation is that he was referring to the 1998 incident.
Knight told the crowd of several thousand at the Bryce Jordan Center that Paterno suffered for his actions. No, sir, it was for his inactions.
Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer