Column: They did Paterno wrong

Associated Press  |  Last updated November 10, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 7: Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions stands on the field during warm-ups before a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes on November 7, 2009 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
The only thing people love more than watching a star claw his way to the top is watching him fall. So add Joe Paterno's name to a far-from-complete list of athletes who plummeted from grace in recent years: Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, O.J. Simpson, Magic Johnson and Barry Bonds. Their sins were not the same, nor were their fates. But they were all banished to a kind of purgatory from which - for most of us - there is no return. I won't defend any of them, or attempt to rank the seriousness of their transgressions. That's St. Peter's job. But I've argued in the past that all of the above - except O.J. - should be allowed to return to their work after suitable punishment. I also wrote that Paterno had earned the right to coach for the remainder of Penn State's football season. So I'll say it again: They did him wrong. Whether or not he averted his eyes to the child sex abuse that longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with perpetrating. The reaction was swift and hardly surprising. More than a few people wrote to say they wished Sandusky had sodomized my sons. What I found even more unsettling was the certainty with which nearly everyone asserted they would have done more had they been in Paterno's shoes. If that were true, every sexual predator would have been stopped after abusing his first victim and we would have ushered in heaven on Earth long before now. Paterno should have done more when graduate assistant Mike McQueary arrived at his house on a Saturday morning in March 2002, shaken by what he would later tell a grand jury he had seen the night before in a shower at the team's football complex: Sandusky raping a young boy. All Paterno did at the time was only what he was obligated to do - notify his immediate superior, athletic director Tim Curley. He never followed up. Curley in turn apprised vice president Gary Schultz and then-university president Graham Spanier. All three failed to meet even the minimum standard required by their positions of authority - to notify the police. That's why Paterno wasn't a target of the grand jury's investigation. It's why Curley and Schultz are charged with perjury as part of an attempted cover-up. And why prosecutors have not ruled out charges against the ex-president, who along with the coach was fired by Penn State's trustees Wednesday night. But that's little comfort and even less consolation as it pertains to Paterno's real responsibilities. He passed the legal test, but not the ethical one, and no one inside or outside the administration wielded more influence. Paterno acknowledged as much Wednesday in a statement that was carefully crafted to try to let him keep his job through the end of the season. ''With the benefit of hindsight,'' he said, ''I wish I had done more.'' So should we all. Then and now. My column on Wednesday wasn't a defense of Paterno but an argument that he deserved the chance to prove his remorse over the next few months, in what would have been the final chapter of his public life. For the lion's share of his 84 years, Paterno has piled good deeds atop one another that had nothing to do with his accomplishments on the field. He practically built the library that sits several blocks from the football stadium, donating some $4 million total to Penn State. Just about every kid who played for the Nittany Lions has talked about how valuable the lessons learned under Paterno proved later in life, although more than one has since called the coach's silence about Sandusky's alleged abuse unconscionable. Agreed. But it doesn't erase all the things Paterno has done over the course of a lifetime. Just the opposite is true. On balance, all that good should be enough to earn him an opportunity to try and erase the stain - as nauseating and hurtful as a sin of omission can ever be - that has obscured everything else about the man. And for those of you who've never done anything wrong, go ahead and keep throwing stones. They did him wrong. --- Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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