Penn State football remains a circle within a circle. The exterior visible to college football fans who see a program stained by a decades-long child-abuse coverup. The interior comprising a ring of still-proud players and diehard deniers, driven to defend the legacy of their coaching giant, Joe Paterno.
More than 200 lettermen made their dug-in positions emphatically clear Tuesday, demanding the university return JoePa’s statue to its previous spot outside Beaver Stadium. The signees also seek a public apology to Paterno’s widow, Sue.
Their request epitomizes the aura of family at Penn State—tangible, avid, woven thickly across generations—not the empty brand of “family” referenced by recruits these days after spending barely a weekend on other campuses.
The thing about strong families, of course, is they protect their own, even at the expense of damning evidence. A fixture for 62 years at Penn State, Paterno won so many games and so many hearts that the inner circle refuses to cite him for the 40-plus years he watched Jerry Sandusky operate as a Nittany Lions assistant, spokesman and molester.
That’s why you simply cannot separate Paterno from the hideous era over which he presided. A memorial should evoke a clear, unmistakable reaction. The statue of Paterno can never accomplish that.
Former player Brian Masella, on behalf of Penn State lettermen who see only the best in their iconic coach, wrote in a petition, “Our program has always been one of integrity, honesty, and respect.” A program so rich in those virtues that it’s currently grappling over paying out $92.8 million in settlements to 32 victims Sandusky raped when they were minors.
Some assaults reportedly were witnessed by fellow coaches. One alleged victim claims Paterno batted down a complaint against Sandusky as far back as 1976. It hurts to imagine how many young boys might have been spared had Paterno exercised his considerable power to expel the problem then.
The precise extent to which Paterno knew of Sandusky’s despicable cravings may never be verified, but circumstances dictate a lose-lose scenario: If JoePa wasn’t abetting the abuse, then he was completely oblivious to the depravity of a man who was his confidant from 1969 to 2011.
Penn State’s new administration must own up to the disgraces of yesteryear by exceeding reasonable expectations of decorum, taste and transparency moving forward. That means tighter scrutiny on moral clauses in coaching contracts, less tolerance for player misbehavior, a genuine commitment to making the program proud again.
West Virginia is slated to visit State College in 2023, by which point Paterno will have been dead more than 11 years. For the ex-players requesting to see JoePa’s bronzed likeness restored, they no doubt recollect a father figure, a compassionate character, a life-changing influence.
That legacy they can cherish privately, but there’s no polishing what we view on the outer circle, no freezing the Penn State story at the moment before it turned disgusting.