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The necessity of morality

I very rarely link to videos in an article, but I think this is worth watching because it's about the closest parallel I can find to the Penn State scandal. (Embedding was disabled, before you ask.) The video I'm referring to is about David Cash, a man who, in 1997, witnessed his best friend beat, rape and kill a small girl named Sherrice Iverson. Cash not only didn't attempt to stop the crime, he never reported it to the police, and even spent the rest of the night playing the slots and going on roller coasters with his "friend." Cash was ostracized at the University of California, Berkeley for not doing enough to prevent the murder, but because there was no law in Nevada at the time forcing people to be good Samaritans, he was legally acquitted of wrongdoing.

But legal wrongdoing and moral wrongdoing are completely different things. A grand jury may have found Joe Paterno innocent in how he handled a first-hand account of one of his assistants molesting a child, but moral guidelines are, rightfully, more stringent. Joe Paterno isn't exactly David Cash; he didn't witness someone getting raped, and while Cash was unquestionably something of a sociopath, it's doubtful Paterno was anywhere near as insidious. Paterno did alert the university to the news he was given, that Jerry Sandusky had committed a heinous act. Legally, he had done nothing wrong. Like Cash, it still wasn't enough.

You can beat the war drum of college athletics and tradition and resume only so often before you have to concede that it just doesn't matter. Sports, football -- they don't matter. They are distractions. Real life matters. A kid getting molested in a shower matters. And for all the great things Paterno has done over the years, how he's managed to build Penn State into one of the powerhouses of college football, he failed to make real life a priority. He and Penn State are just as much an example of how college sports has gone awry, how the creation of schools as football factories has warped the priorities of respectable men like Paterno into allowing something like this to happen.

When Paterno was informed of what Sandusky had done, he weighed football with real life -- Sandusky as an assistant coach, and Sandusky as a person. And he chose football. There's a level of moral responsibility every human being has, a base level of ethics that crosses cultural boundaries, that everyone realizes is wrong. And when Paterno was informed of what Sandusky had done, he violated that line by not using the infinite amount of resources at his disposal to call the police, to get him out of there, to get him fired.

If the university allows Paterno to coach even another game, in effect, they'll be sanctioning what happened. Child molestation is a crime that many people believe should be punishable by death -- short of murder, it is inarguably the worst possible thing someone like Jerry Sandusky can do. Penn State was misguided enough to let him pass for what he did, and now the very least they can do -- and it is the absolutely least -- is to not let Paterno off the hook too. He has to go. A message has to be sent that allowing a child rapist to remain on campus for a full decade is something everyone should pay for, no matter the resume of who is responsible. Paterno didn't fail as a football coach; he failed as a person. And for the first time in his life, he is simply unqualified to be the coach of a football team any longer.

In 2007, a Penn State tailback named Austin Scott was charged with rape. A day later, Penn State defeated Wisconsin 38-7, and the topic at hand at the post-game press conference was Scott's misbehavior. "Paterno angrilly refused (to) comment on the situation," The Times Leader wrote.

“I don’t want to get into that,” Paterno said. “We just won a football game, OK? You guys want to talk about all that other stuff. I’m not going to even make a comment on it. ... And I’m annoyed. It’s as simple as that. I had a bunch of kids that played a good football game today against a good team. That’s what I thought we ought to talk about."

A year before, Paterno was asked in a press conference what he thought about A.J. Nicholson, a Florida State linebacker who was accused of sexually assaulting a girl. His response was fascinating: "There’s some tough -- there’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do?

“Geez. I hope -- thank God they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms,” Paterno continued. “But that’s too bad. You hate to see that. I really do. You like to see a kid end up his football career. He’s a heck of a football player, by the way; he’s a really good football player. And it’s just too bad.

"If my kids calls for [my resignation], if my squad calls for it ... but when people don't know what they're doing are looking for publicity or trying to give publicity to their cause or looking for some sort of scapegoat, no, it doesn't bother me."

In both cases, Paterno's mentality was to get back to football, to brush off distractions. Paterno's dogmatic focus on football has been lauded over the years, the same way Bear Bryant's stringent coaching regime was applauded as toughness personified. It's only now that we see what a mistake it was for an 84-year-old man to coach impressionable, misinformed young men. For all the praise his character has gotten over the years, his increasingly lax approach to discipline needs to be recognized. He sat on top, an aging man growing further and further apart from the players he was coaching; it would be natural for any 20-year-old to tune out the teachings of someone so old, but Paterno exacerbated the situation. He recruited players with shaky portfolios for years, sinking the school's graduation rate, and as the years progressed, a man with an already laissez-faire approach to discipline became that much more incapable of handing it out, if he had any desire at all.

In a sense, he had created a "don't ask don't tell" policy at the university. As a man in his 80's, he simply couldn't be asked to handle the same duties he had before, but Penn State tolerated it because he was Paterno, a legend, a god in the state of Pennsylvania. They had to have known as the years went on that they were only getting Paterno the coach, that Paterno was too old, too stubborn and lacked the initiative to do anything about the misbehavior of the players and assistants he himself recruited. And they went on with it. They too chose football, and when informed of Jerry Sandusky's wrongdoings, they turned the other cheek.


On Monday, Paterno was set to give a press conference to members of the media. But once again, his directive was football. Reporters were informed that Paterno only wished to discuss Penn State's upcoming game with Nebraska, and perhaps sensing what an awful image it would be if Paterno refused to talk about Sandusky, they pulled the plug on him and left the reporters out to dry.

Suddenly Paterno doesn't look so bright, so fiery, so wise. He gave a brief statement as he was accosted by reporters and looked tired, wizened and pathetic -- an old man clinging desperately to his job, so caught up in his ambition that he's unable to comprehend why people find the Sandusky case so abhorrent, why people now see him as someone who's lost his way.

In that regard, Paterno is very much like David Cash. It's hard to believe there's a lot of introspection going on with Paterno. Had he actually gone to that press conference, it was inevitable that he would've been asked about Sandusky. And what would his response have been? No comment? I don't want to comment? Let's get on with football? His warped priorities would've been on full display, the winningest coach in history unable to look beyond the football field.

And now, all we can do is wait. It's only a matter of time -- hopefully, maybe minutes after this is posted -- that common sense will prevail, that Paterno will either be fired or coaxed into retirement, and Penn State will be able to make a moral stand nine years after the fact. But it won't mean anything unless the lessons of this are applied everywhere. Never again should a college coach be given so much authority at a university that he's allowed to have a known rapist remain as his assistant. Never again should someone so visibly past his prime be allowed to jeopardize a school's credibility for the sake of dollar signs and W's. Never again should university officials be so gutless, so cowardly that they forsake any integrity they might have had to keep someone like him onboard. And never again should something as meaningless and trifling as college football mean more than real life, than the lives of those victims who will never get their childhood back, who were violated because college football meant more to the rich old men who allowed it to happen.

Never again.