Commentary: Cover-ups cause downfall of great men

You can’t put this back together. It’s on the ground in a million pieces. An icon, a legend and by all accounts a great man stood by and watched an assistant coach allegedly molest children. No explanation will satisfy the questions. Joe Paterno had to go. But how did it get this far?

According to reports, when a graduate assistant made Paterno aware of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions, Paterno passed the message along to his superiors. That was probably the right move considering Paterno heard the information and didn’t uncover it himself.

But then something funny happened: nothing.

When the sky didn’t fall down on Sandusky, Paterno didn’t ask questions. He didn’t ask why. At that point, Paterno had an obligation as the head football coach, Penn State legend and human being to do more. He did not. Paterno had to go.

It’s always the cover-up. It’s the downfall of great men. The Watergate break-in was nothing; covering it up brought down Nixon. An intern named Monica wasn’t Clinton’s mistake, it was lying about it. Jim Tressel didn’t lose his job because his
players broke the rules; he lost it because he covered their tracks.

You don’t have to look further than Ronald Reagan to prove this theory. Iran-Contra was a much bigger infraction than a break-in at a funny-shaped hotel or a late-night romp with someone who wasn’t your wife. It was certainly bigger than a few
players getting tattoos for some game-worn pants.

Yet Reagan survived. He survived because he took the blame, even though he wasn’t the one who broke the law. It happened on his watch, so the scandal belonged to him. He accepted his role and said he was sorry.

Paterno didn’t commit any crimes. He didn’t even violate NCAA rules. All he had to do was follow up with his superiors or call the police. But he didn’t. He was complicit in a cover-up and it was a cover-up of one of the most heinous crimes known to mankind.

You can’t put this back together. It’s on the ground in a million pieces.

The obvious lesson in this story is aside from cover-ups being unjust to the victims, they never work out for the accomplices. Paterno’s legacy is gone. Had he come forward a decade ago, it would have been a mild embarrassment to the university, but mostly justice for the victims and possibly punishment for Sandusky.

I don’t think there will ever be a good explanation for what happened in State College for the last 10 years. I don’t think we’ll ever really understand why people looked the other way, and especially why Paterno looked the other way.

Paterno had to go. But in the immediate aftermath, many Penn State fans and students have come to his defense. In response, everyone else now thinks Penn State supporters are immoral nut-jobs. Allow me a chance to write in their defense.

The Paterno supporters aren’t backing him because he didn’t do anything wrong or because football is more important. They are backing him because they don’t know what else to do.

They woke up this week and found out Paterno, the man they grew up worshiping, wasn’t the man they thought he was. He had a sterling reputation until Nov. 5. By the following Monday, it was gone. It was on the ground in a million pieces.

For all the people who grew up Penn State, that’s a lot to handle in a really small amount of time. They’ll come around and accept that he had to go. But give them time to process what has happened.

Imagine what it would be like if your whole world came crashing down around you. Everything they grew up believing in got wiped away in less than a week.

Michael Weinrab, a sportswriter who grew up in State College, wrote a column on Grantland.com Tuesday about the situation called “Growing Up Penn State.”

The subtitle of the column has haunted me all week. Partly because it’s brilliantly written and partly because it’s painfully true. The subtitle was “The End of Everything at State College.”

The end of everything. That’s what this is. This isn’t just the fall of Paterno or Penn State football. It’s not about a university president. It’s not really even about Sandusky and the terrible things he allegedly did to children.

This is the end of everything at State College. The community was built around Saturdays with Paterno, and it turns out he wasn’t the icon they thought he was. A man held in such high esteem, and for good reason, was actually covering up alleged
child molestations.

The world is upside down in State College. It’s upside down everywhere. If you can’t believe in Paterno, can you believe in anyone or anything?

A generation of Penn State fans and supporters will never believe in anything again. How could those people? Everything they knew is on the ground in a million pieces, and you can’t put it back together.


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