Keeping Score

‘Every Day Was a Mistake’: How Should Penn State Deal with Joe Paterno?

The Freeh Report accused the legendary coach, and other Penn State leaders, of concealing Jerry Sandusky's misdeeds. Will JoePa's legacy ever recover?

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Ned Dishman / Getty Images

Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions walks on the sideline during the game against the University of Akron Zips at Beaver Stadium on September 5, 2009 in State College, Pennsylvania.

Don’t blame football. That was Joe Paterno’s message to the world about a month before his death. In December, Paterno penned an opinion piece that was made public on July 11, a day before an independent investigation concluded Paterno and other senior Penn State officials tried to cover up Jerry Sandusky’s crimes. In the op-ed, which makes no mention of Sandusky’s victims, Paterno wrote: “I feel compelled to say, in no uncertain terms, that this is not a football scandal.”

Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who led the probe into the university’s handling of the Sandusky affair — and found that the university bungled it with tragic consequences — thought differently. Among the “cause[s] for this failure to protect child victims and report to authorities” — a negligent board of directors, failure to comply with federal crime reporting laws,  a “striking lack of empathy” — Freeh listed “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.”

(MORE: Penn State Probe: Freeh Report Reveals Paterno, Administrators Concealed Facts)

So it’s very much a football scandal, says Freeh. Who do you believe at this point? The man whose team interviewed over 430 people connected to the case, and analyzed over 3.5 million documents and emails? Or Paterno, who likely perjured himself before his death, since he told a grand jury he was not aware of a 1998 sexual assault about Sandusky, even though Freeh’s evidence revealed that he did?

This was always about football. The investigation said that it was “reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university — [former Penn State president Graham] Spanier, [former senior V.P. Gary] Schultz, Paterno, and [Penn State athletic director Tim] Curley — repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the university’s board of trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large.”

By protecting football, Penn State was protecting the entire university. “Football and the university melded at Penn State,” says Charles Yesalis, emeritus professor of health policy and administration at Penn State, who lived and taught in State College, Pa. for 25 years before moving to Virginia a few months ago. “The sports program and the university are one, in part because Paterno was the most powerful person on campus, by far. That’s what was problematic here, what made Penn State different. I don’t know of another place where that’s been allowed to happen. There was no firewall. Other universities have sustained that firewall.”

Penn State’s perspective got warped. “When these people decided to ruin their lives to keep the reputation of Penn State and Penn State football, I wasn’t surprised,” says Yesalis, who has also co-written a new book, The Fundamentals of U.S. Health Care: Perspectives and Principles. “Very much of the behavior was cult-like. There is this arrogance that ‘we are Penn State, we are above the law.’” When he chaired a committee on athletic compliance over a decade ago, Yesalis remembers suggesting that the university hire an outside auditor to make sure Penn State was following the rules. “I hate when people talk about body language and everything,” says Yesalis. “I’m a scientist, I think it’s total bullshit. Having said that, I looked around the table, and these people thought I had antlers coming out of my goddam head, because I questioned the integrity of Penn State.”

(PHOTOS: Joe Paterno: Penn State Bids Farewell)

Will Penn State’s “culture of reverence” for the football program change? TIME asked Penn State if the school had enacted any specific measures to tone down the university’s emphasis on football, and was directed to spokesman David La Torre. He did not offer much clarity. “There has been a significant change in the highest levels of university leadership,” he wrote in an email. “The acting athletic director and football coach understand President Erickson and the Board have very clear expectations on governance and oversight. If done properly, excellence in academics and athletics can go hand in hand.” When pressed again for something more specific, La Torre’s replied that “the change in personnel helps in changing the culture.”

That’s no guarantee at Penn State. Jason Lanter, a psychology professor at Kutztown University and former president of the Drake Group, a college sports reform organization, suggests that the school start with one Freeh report recommendation: that Penn State “integrate, where feasible, academic support staff, programs and locations” for student-athletes. Why should athletes, for example, receive academic support services separate from other students? Such special treatment elevates the status of athletes on campus. “It’s time to rein it in,” says Lanter. “And bring athletes back into the university.”

As Penn State considers these reforms, the school must also grapple with Paterno’s legacy. Even some of his supporters admit it’s now harmed.  “If the report is accurate, how can it not be?” says Ed Monaghan, who played for Paterno in the late-1980s, and is now a councilman in Upper Darby Township (Pa.). “How can Joe let this happen?”

When asked if Penn State should remove the statue of Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium, Monaghan said he’d need more time to decide. (Despite Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight’s passionate defense of Paterno at his memorial service, Nike announced that the child-development center at its corporate headquarters would no longer be named for Paterno). At least one former player thinks the statue should stay. “To say he was covering it up is, I think, crazy,” says former Penn State tight end Mickey Shuler, who played in the NFL for 14 seasons, from 1978-1991, for the Jets and the Eagles. “I don’t believe that the football program has any [reason] to be feeling that they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. I think that as time shows itself, you’ll see that coach Paterno probably handled this thing as best he could with the information he was given. He’s not a police officer, he’s not a D.A., he’s not any of those things. But I’m sure he cooperated and wanted the truth. And he’s the only one who has said so far, ‘I would step down from my job,’ and ‘I wish I could have done more.’ I haven’t heard anyone else say that.”

Yesalis, whose mother was sexually abused as a child, and whose sister adopted two sexually abused toddlers, offers a more direct argument about the statue. “After reading that report, are you nuts?” he says. “Of course Penn State should take it down. Louis Freeh left very little for interpretation. It just drives me nuts when people say Paterno made one mistake. No he did not. Every morning that man got out of bed, being the most powerful man at the university, and didn’t do the right thing, he made a mistake. He made several thousand. Every day over a ten-year period, he let that monster rape little children and did not do anything about it. Every day was a mistake for Joe Paterno.”

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