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Paterno, Penn State, and Pedophilia

I'm a Penn State alumnus. I was shocked at the news.

Nitanny Lion
I'm a Penn State alumnus. Like many of us, I feel like I have some skin in this ugly game. My jaw literally dropped when the Jerry Sandusky-child molesting story broke. But my reaction to the minimalist response of head Coach Joe Paterno (JoPa) to the revelation by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary (and now ex-assistant coach), made it drop even lower. How could Joe not have followed up to see how the case was being handled by the Athletic Director? The Administration? The Police? What did Joe say to Sandusky? He had to have contacted Sandusky. Didn't he?

After all, Paterno always talked. Like an uncle. About "the kids." Well, the kids on the team, specifically. His players. Always talked about them. I just assumed he cared about kids. In general, not just the kids who played Penn State football. Didn't he?

Paterno was a legend that rippled out from Happy Valley and lapped up on shores world- wide. They even teach a course on Paterno at the university. I bet they don't teach one on Einstein. Lot's of things in State College, PA are named after him. Even ice cream. And he's donated over three million dollars to the university. That's could be a record for an active, state university faculty member.

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Image previewJoPa was a time-honored profile in my life. My wife used to joke, when Penn State was having a bad game, streak, season: "Paterno called when you were out. He wants your input."

Joe was iconic to most alumni, that pseudo-intimate, first name basis kind of iconic, even if you weren't a fanatical Nitanny Lion fan. Not just for his won-loss record. Not just for his durability. But also for his public concern about students, players, scholarship, modesty, deportment, the list goes on. And he put his money where his mouth was.

Until this! You have to wonder about legendary stature. Was Joe, as the saying goes, also a legend in his own mind? Was he a willing participant in PSU groupthink and institutional mind guarding? Was he too good a friend to Jerry Sandusky to take in the information presented to him on 2002 and run, or at least walk with it? Or, with the clock running out on his active coaching career, was he only able to think about his legacy, and that of Penn State football?

Maybe it was it a mixture of all these factors, plus the added element of processing all the implications of the Sandusky revelation with a then-75 year old brain? Did he really believe it all might go away? It was a bad dream? Did he never think or talk about it once Sandusky permanently left the building? Is that really possible? Psychologically possible?

Little of this, of course, would explain the misguided, ill-conceived behaviors of others, from McQueary to the campus police, to the university president, leading, effectively, to a cover-up in Happy Valley.

There was an agenda that they were all following Including Joe. But regarding ethical, honorable, moral behavior, Joe really did seem to also talk the talk and walk the walk. Was it all a persona, a false front? Or just a failing. A blind spot. Joe fell from grace, in our eyes. In his eyes as well? In the eyes of Mrs. Paterno and his children's? Or, lest we forget, in the eyes of Jerry Sandusky's victims?

Many of Paterno's supporters seem to be doing this forgetting in the wake of his firing.

If Joe had retired earlier, as the Board was rumored to have requested, but which Joe dismissed—because, as an icon, he could--would it have made a difference now? Maybe a little. To Joe and his fans. And the media. To the university? To the football program? In the record books (no asterisk)? Probably. The glare of 24/7 news would be stunted and dimmed. Moral clucking would have moved on to other scandals. There's only so much attention span. Only so much room at the top of the national scandal meter. Oops, there I go, forgetting The kid-victims again. Would it have made a difference to them? Probably not. Their lives and memories go on.

Okay, on another string of thought entirely. Will Joe's kids, the Penn State players, be able to compartmentalize, suppress, ignore the tumult, the shock, the glare and disruptiveness of the dismissal of JoePa and beat Nebraska? Or, will this earthquake just be too...

Damn it! There I go. Again. Forgetting about the kids. Sandusky's victim-kids I mean.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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