Not long after Pennsylvania State University joined the Big Ten as its 11th member in the 1990s, I was dispatched to cover a Nittany Lion football game against Purdue University in that idyllic place they refer to as Happy Valley.
On the Friday night before the game, the PSU athletic department hosted visiting media at a reception, during which its legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, pulled up a chair at a large round table and engaged in a leisurely (and off the record) chat with the scribes.
As a born-and-bred Midwesterner, I had been skeptical about the intrusion of this long-established Eastern independent into the sacred confines of the Big Ten. And for all his years, victories, noble deeds and buttoned-down policies, I also wondered if Paterno was too good to be true.
Yet for well more than an hour on this night, “JoePa” spoke passionately not so much about winning football games, but about values and doing things the right way. I returned to my hotel room that evening thinking he was the real deal, as good as everyone had said and written.
The next afternoon, the multitudes piled into majestic Beaver Stadium. My press-box view afforded the backdrop of Mount Nittany. It was easy to understand how the experience of Penn State football was such an exalted one in the Keystone State.
And literally lording over it all was the grandfatherly JoePa.
He, and Penn State, made us all believe it was an island of virtue. There was the slogan, “Success With Honor.” And there was the lyric from the alma mater … “May no act of ours bring shame, to one heart that loves thy name.”
But now it’s not-so-Happy Valley. Paterno and the PSU president, Graham Spanier, have been fired. Two other athletics officials are under indictment for perjury. And the shame has piled up higher than Mount Nittany’s 2,077 feet.
As horrific as the alleged sexual abuse of young boys by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky may be, just as horrendous are the alleged inactions of PSU officials and Paterno himself to prevent it.
One can only ask, how in hell could they sit on this information not just for days, but for years, until a Pennsylvania grand jury finally issued subpoenas, solicited testimony and returned indictments?
Appalling ... unconscionable … abhorrent.
Still another example that when it comes to sports—hell, when it comes to society—it seems as if our moral compass is spinning out of control.
Yet the Penn State allegations are beyond the pale because those with the most power turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to those with the least power … children.
Paramount, evidently, was the desire to protect the brands of “Penn State Football” and Paterno, its saintly head coach.
Finally, five days after the story broke, Penn State’s board of trustees did what it simply had to do: fire Paterno even as he tried to dictate his own exit by announcing his retirement. As this is being written, there has been no word about the future of Mike McQueary, the then-PSU grad assistant and current wide receivers coach who witnessed Sandusky allegedly sexually assaulting a young boy and instead of acting immediately to protect the youth, chose instead to wait to tell others, including his father and Paterno.
Yet … nothing … happened.
Two quotes come to mind. Said President Abraham Lincoln, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” And from Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Good men became cowards. Evil prevailed.
With Paterno gone, at least Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has been spared the potentially embarrassing act of handing Paterno the Big Ten championship trophy at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 3. Then again, the Big Ten will have to decide how it wants to handle the names on that trophy.
It’s the “Stagg-Paterno” Trophy.
Yes, we should feel bad for Paterno, a noble man who, in the end, looked more like a sad old fool unaware of the larger issues.
As for Jerry Sandusky, if he is found guilty, we can only hope he spends the rest of his life in jail.
But make no mistake. At Penn State, in time, football will again be king and the happiness will return to Happy Valley.
Except for the victims, of course.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.