In the End, It Really is How You Play the Game
The New York Times ran a story July 1 about the last contract Joe Paterno negotiated with Penn State before he was dismissed as coach in November 2011. It seems that almost immediately after Paterno testified in January 2011 before the grand jury that was investigating allegations of child sexual abuse against Jerry Sandusky, he contacted the President and athletic director and advised them he wanted to renegotiate his contract.
Under terms of that contract, Paterno was scheduled to coach through the 2015 season. Paterno and his bosses negotiated for seven months and Paterno signed a new deal in August 2011. Under this new contract Paterno agreed to resign at the end of the 2011 season in exchange for a one-time balloon payment of $3 million.
The University was also obligated to forgive some personal loans made to Paterno on which $350,000 was still owed. Among other perks the Paterno family was to receive free use of a luxury suite at the school’s football stadium for 25 years and Paterno would have the free use of a university-owned jet.
This contract was negotiated without the Board of Trustees of the University ever having been made aware of its existence. In fact, no one outside of those directly involved even knew that a new contract was in place until two days after Sandusky was arrested in November 2011. At that time some board members questioned the validity of the contract because of the way it had been negotiated. The Times reported that the Paterno family, through a third party, contacted school officials and told them the family would sue if the contract was not honored. The Board of Trustees ultimately decided to honor the contract. The $3 million payment was made in April to Sue Paterno, the coach’s widow.
This story was followed a day later by the publication of the report written by a special committee led by former FBI head Louis Free. The Free report specifically identified four top officials at Penn State, including Paterno, as having orchestrated a coverup of the allegations against Sandusky. Free concluded that Paterno and the others knew about the allegations at least since 1998 and did nothing to try and stop Sandusky.
The Times story was even more damning because it reminded us that Paterno and the others knew for 10 months prior to Sandusky’s arrest that he was being investigated. Paterno had in fact testified before the grand jury about the meeting he had with former assistant coach Mike McQueary in 2001 when McQueary told him about alleged sexual abuse that he had witnessed in a football building shower.
Paterno knew as soon as he finished testifying before the grand jury that the timing of events involving Sandusky would eventually become public. He suspected that he would come under fire for his lack of action to make certain that Sandusky’s alleged acts were reported to the proper authorities. Paterno knew that he needed to negotiate a separation agreement with the school that would protect his wife and children as much as possible. He then spent seven months negotiating the details of that agreement and signed it in August 2011.
After Paterno signed the contract, Sandusky continued for three months to maintain an office on campus and also retained full rights to use the facilities in the football building. Sandusky in fact attended every Penn State home football game during the 2011 season.
There is no other conclusion to draw but that Paterno continued to the end to put his own self-interest ahead of any idea of seeing that justice was done and that children were protected. There is a strong likelihood that he committed perjury in his grand jury testimony. He violated state and federal laws by not reporting what he knew when he first learned of allegations. No criminal charges can be brought after his death; but many legal experts agree that his actions could have led to an indictment for obsruction of justice or misprison of felony.
His actions, in conjunction with those of the former President, Athletic Director and Vice President of Penn State, have seriously compromised any defense the school may have had with respect to the numerous civil lawsuits that have and will be filed. The actions of these individuals may also amount to prima facie evidence of a lack of institutional control of the football program. If so, then the NCAA may also at some point assess penalties against the university and its football program.
Numerous media people and others have already called on the school to remove the statue of Paterno that stands outside of Beaver Stadium and to remove his name from a library branch on campus. Others have called for the university or the NCAA to shut the program down for at least a year, so that a totally new start can be made.
There is no denying that Paterno did many positive things during his long tenure at Penn State. In the end, the school is paying a steep price for allowing him to become the most powerful figure on campus. This unfortunately is but one of a number of instances where coaches who were given almost absolute power brought shame to themselves and their schools. Those names include Woody Hayes, Bobby Petrino, Dave Bliss (at Baylor), Jim Harrick, Bob Knight, Butch Davis, Barry Switzer, Jim Tressel and Jerry Tarkanian. Others such as Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma at Connecticut may also deserve to be on this list. John Calipairi has been head men’s basketball coach at two schools when their Final Four appearances were vacated.
The overriding message here is that colleges and universities must exercise proper oversight of their athletic departments. Coaches cannot be allowed to become bigger than the schools where they work. Another powerful message is that good work done by coaches can be undone by the unbridled exercise of power.
It’s time to stop making excuses for successful coaches who make egregious mistakes. Everyone must be held accountable for bad decisions. Consequences must be endured, not explained away.
The leaders at Penn State must do everything in their power to show that they understand the impact of Paterno’s poor choices. These leaders must not waste any more time in moving forward and doing what they can to help Jerry Sandusky’s victims and to restore the public trust so essential to any public entity, especially a public university that is considered a state role model in may ways.
As legendary sports writer Grantland Rice wrote many years ago, “For when the Great Scorer comes to mark against your name . . . he writes, not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.”
Greg Tyler is the Library Director/Archivist at the United States Sports Academy as well as the editor of The Sport Digest. He also teaches courses on sports law at the Academy. He has lectured on legal issues such as copyright law in the academic environment and on juvenile laws in this country.