The Jerry Sandusky scandal continues to change the landscape of Penn State University. Sandusky’s recent conviction on dozens of criminal charges related to sexual misconduct with children led to, among other things, a debate about whether to remove the statue of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, from its prominent place outside Penn State’s Beaver Stadium.
According to the independent report by investigator Louis Freeh, Paterno participated in the cover-up of the Sandusky incident, and could have prevented countless instances of sexual abuse, had he simply done the obviously right thing and reported Sandusky to the proper legal authorities.
I previously argued that the statue should remain up, as a kind of memorial of Paterno’s greatest failure and a reminder to the Penn State community of what can happen when an ordinary man is elevated to the status of a deity.
I now want to argue for an additional conclusion. The Paterno family, by challenging the conclusions of the Freeh report, and continuing to insist that the best way to help Sandusky’s victims is to “uncover the whole story,” continue to perpetuate the same attitudes and behavior that allowed this horrible incident to occur. At this point, if they aren’t willing to acknowledge the moral failings of their patriarch, the least they can do is shut the hell up.
There are two arguments for the conclusion that the Paternos ought to give up their challenge of the Freeh report. First, suggesting that there is somehow a deeper truth to be found implies that either the report is somehow mistaken, or that Paterno was justified in protecting Sandusky.
The first possibility seems very unlikely, since the university itself basically gave Freeh’s team total access to all relevant information. The likelihood of anything vindicating Paterno in this case coming to light is extremely low.
But the second possibility suggests something morally reprehensible. There are no circumstances which would justify Paterno’s failure to act, and to continue to suggest that there might be is a failure to appreciate the harm Paterno caused Sandusky’s victims. In a sense, by even suggesting that Paterno’s actions might be justified, the Paternos are continuing to victimize Sandusky’s victims.
The second argument for the conclusion that the Paterno family ought to keep silent is based on the moral imperative that the attitudes which perpetuated this situation be eliminated from the Penn State zeitgeist. One of those attitudes is the deification of Paterno.
By continuing to suggest that Paterno is anything other than a criminal offender in this case, the Paternos perpetuate the very attitudes that allowed Sandusky free reign to victimize children. The Paternos, by trying to defend JoePa’s legacy, are interfering with the healing that must take place if Penn State, as well as Sandusky’s victims, are ever to recover from this tragedy.
It is perfectly understandable that the Paterno family would feel some drive to protect and defend their famous patriarch, even in the face of damning evidence of his criminal negligence. What is less understandable is their insistence on making a public spectacle of doing so. At this point, the Paterno family owes it to both the victims of Jerry Sandusky, and the Penn State community, to just shut up.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.