Until this week, Penn State coach Joe Paterno was the epitome of everything that was right with college athletics. A sex abuse scandal that has spread to the entire university has changed all that. Paterno has been fired for allegedly failing to report abuse by a former assistant coach to police and his legacy has gone from 'St. Joe' to disgrace. Bob talks with Paterno biographer Frank Fitzpatrick.
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Nobody, at least nobody who ever read a sports page, ever believed the following sentence would be uttered: This week Joe Paterno was fired. Why? Because of what the venerated 84-year-old Nittany Lions coach didn't do in connection with the child sex abuse case against his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, a case that has rocked the Penn State campus and the world of college football.
Penn State is cleaning house. Legendary football coach Joe Paterno and the college president...
...Downtown state college to protest Paterno’s ouster. Officers in riot gear used pepper spray to control the crowd.
In a statement Paterno himself admitted his actions did fall short and he wrote, “This is a tragedy. It’s one of the great sorrows of my life.”
The arrests of Athletic Director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, the university's senior vice president for finance and business for allegedly covering up the scandal, were reminiscent of the Catholic Church's complicity in protecting pedophile priests.
But Joe Paterno, who was fired for failing to diligently pursue allegations against Sandusky, was no anonymous administrator. He is a legend, the winningest coach in the history of big time college football and a man who long ago was beatified on the way to being deified by the sporting media.
One of thousands of journalists who contributed to the Paterno legend is Frank Fitzpatrick, columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of two books about Paterno and Penn State football. Fitzpatrick says the church analogy is particularly apt.
You know, no one will ever look at the Pope or the Catholic hierarchy in the same way again. And, and, you know, in a like manner, no one’s ever gonna view Joe Paterno in, in the same way ever again. Well, I make clear that Joe hasn’t had the chance to give his side of the story yet, but if these allegations are true, it turns the whole Joe Paterno story on its head.
Print reporters, columnists, most especially, it seems to me, TV producers and game announcers over the years, have been just extraordinarily fulsome about the man. At certain points it veered on the comical. In covering Paterno and in writing your books, did – did you personally react to the degree of the rapturousness of the prose?
Well, I always tried to point out that as adored as, as Joe Paterno was in college football, there was a certain segment of the population, particularly among coaches, who – who seem to be the the focus of this criticism over the years, that people who did things the way as Joe wouldn’t do it, which I think that Joe was, was sanctimonious, was holier than thou, was – when, in fact, you know, he was just like anybody else.
If we didn’t have these people idealizing him in such a way, you know, maybe we’d all have a different view of “Saint Joe.”
His athletes have had a higher graduation rate than athletes at other major football schools. His players have had a lower incidence [LAUGHS] of felony arrests, it seems to me. There's been no evidence that he hasn't lived up to the image of the man beyond reproach.
No, that's true. Like any mythology, there's truth at its core. And certainly this casts his entire career in a different light, but it would be a shame if this indiscretion, as large and heinous as it, as it might be, were to overshadow 60 years of, of an admirable record.
You know, I believe that if the allegations are true, what Curley and Schultz did is worst than child abuse. And I say that for the following reason: Pedophiles are born with these impulses that it's their job to fight. When they’re week and when they fail and when they commit crimes, it's horrible but they’re afflicted. People who enable them, whether it's the Vatican or allegedly the athletic director of the Penn State Nittany Lions, they are not afflicted. They’re simply making the most expedient choice, the most cynical possible choice that results in more children being harmed.
Oh, you’re right. I mean, you can make that argument, that what drove Sandusky is a sickness but, you know, what – what these other people did is purely cold and calculating. And I just can’t fathom it. I mean, it’s - it's sickening.
You are a Joe Paterno biographer. Let's just say you were starting that project today, where do you begin?
I, I understand Paterno addressed his team; he broke down in tears. To me that would be the opening scene. I mean, I would wonder what's behind these tears. Is it a guy that realizes he’s nuked his reputation and his legacy? Is it someone that’s finally recognized the evil that’s at the heart of this whole matter or somebody who’s disappointed in himself and feels bad for his players, who had nothing to do with this and now have to kind of suffer the consequences?
Is there anything you've written about Paterno, either in your books or in columns over the years, that, that just you wish you could have back?
Well, just about everything now, Bob. We are all gonna view Joe Paterno for as long as, as he’s on this earth and beyond through the prism of this scandal. I – to think of it in terms of Joe’s legacy, think – think of the obituary that’ll be written when he’s died. This is going to be in the lead. I mean, there may be other elements to that first paragraph of that obituary. It may say he was a great coach who won two national championships and tried to do things the right way.
But believe me, there’s gonna be a mention of this scandal in there and his great failing.
It’s as if Abraham Lincoln had slaves or something. I mean, there’s this moral compromise that you never thought possible.
Fitz, thank you very much.
All right, Bob. Take care.
Frank Fitzpatrick is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of The Lion in Autumn.
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