Honoring Paterno dishonors sexual abuse victims

Sports | Penn State and its football fans continue to overlook the coach’s connection to the Jerry Sandusky scandal
by J.C. Derrick
Posted on Wednesday, September 21, 2016, at 4:52 pm

In Daniel Chapter 9, the Prophet Daniel came to understand his people and Jerusalem were in the midst of a 70-year judgment. This realization caused the exiled Israelite to fall on his face in prayer and confession:

“We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. … To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you.”

Now, remember, it was not Daniel’s sin that had prompted God’s judgment and the exile, but he recognized himself as part of the larger community at fault.

I thought of this story after I passed Penn State University’s swanky Beaver Stadium during a reporting trip last week. On my way through State College, Pa., I saw copious support for the local school, including a huge yard sign that read, “I SUPPORT PENN STATE FOOTBALL.”

Based on the behavior of the fan base at large, it likely should have included a parenthetical reference: “(AT ANY COST).”

My jaunt through central Pennsylvania came only two days before Penn State honored former head football coach Joe Paterno with video tributes during the Nittany Lions’ game with Temple, marking the 50th anniversary of Paterno’s first game as coach.

To call Penn State’s exhibition both tone-deaf and irresponsible would be an understatement.

“This Saturday, in what is believed to be a first in the history of college football, a university will hold a game-day ceremony to honor the enabler of a child rapist,” Christine Brennan wrote last week in a biting USA Today column.

During the tributes, Temple fans at the game turned their backs in protest. “He turned his back. We’ll turn ours,” read one sign.

Paterno, who died in early 2012, was never formally charged for wrongdoing in connection with the dozens of boys his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, sexually abused, but he was fired in 2011 for not doing more to stop it. Paterno knew of the allegations at least by 1998 and allegedly as early as 1976.

I’ve long been on record saying it is right for Paterno to be held accountable for what occurred under his nose for decades. Even if you disagree, it’s difficult not to agree Penn State has an image problem. And rather than work to build the new image it desperately needs, the school bear-hugged the old one.

I don’t get it. Does school leadership not realize that in the eyes of millions, Penn State is synonymous with widespread sexual abuse of children?

Does school leadership not realize that in the eyes of millions, Penn State is synonymous with widespread sexual abuse of children?

It remains unclear when Penn State plans to play video tributes for the courageous survivors who exposed the scandal—almost certainly preventing further abuse by Sandusky.

Obviously, Penn State fans weren’t the ones perpetrating crimes against Sandusky’s victims, but how about a little community remorse or shame? Forget about it. Their misplaced priorities were on full display: The crowd gave the three tribute videos standing ovations and fans placed balloons and flowers at the former site of Paterno’s statue (removed in 2012, six months after Paterno’s death) outside the stadium. Some even wore T-shirts declaring, “Paterno was railroaded” and “Sandusky is innocent.”

This is, sadly, far from isolated: A legion of Penn State loyalists troll the internet harassing those who dare speak out against Paterno. (I have little doubt I’ll be targeted again for this column.)

We have a long way to go before our culture stops tolerating sex crimes—and stops idolizing sports teams and players above all else. From Penn State to Brock Turner to the emerging USA Gymnastics scandal, a disturbing number of sex crimes—and the injustice that often goes along with them—involve sports.

Penn State’s “total disregard” for victims illustrates what a mistake the NCAA made when it declined to levy a multi-year death penalty against Penn State football in 2012. It should look for an opportunity to reinstate sanctions.

If the last five years have proved anything, it’s this: The football-worship culture that aided Sandusky’s crimes is still alive and well in State College, Pa.

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD’s deputy chief content officer and WORLD Radio’s managing editor based in Dallas. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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  • Slava Tebje Gospodi
    Posted: Wed, 09/21/2016 05:24 pm

    Maybe instead of pulling their championship events out of North Carolina which is trying to protect sex abuse victims the NCAA should pull them out of Pennsylvania which is trying to protect sex abuse perpetrators.

  • Laneygirl's picture
    Posted: Fri, 09/23/2016 09:15 am

    Hear, Hear!

  • psubrent
    Posted: Wed, 09/21/2016 07:10 pm

    As a PSU alumnus and a prison chaplain who ministers to sex offenders (including child sexual abusers), I would L-O-V-E to have a conversation with you about this, J.C.  If you or anybody at World online reads this, you'll know how to reach me.

  • DC
    Posted: Wed, 09/21/2016 07:56 pm

    J.C. - I have no comment for you.  Your lack journalistic abilities are obvious based on your poor research and opinion based comments.  This comment is directed to Marvin Olasky.  I am NOT an alumnus of Penn State.  As a PA resident, I was disappointed when the news of this scandal first broke.  But the NCAA, the PSU board of trustees, and even Louis Freeh have proven to be corrupt.  

    I have subscribed to World for close to 2 decades now.  I have always considered World to be my primary news source, and reliable.  I previously withheld comment on your Penn State articles because the facts didn't look good.  The facts are out now.  And you, Marvin, allow this opinion based article to appear on your pages.  You disappoint me.  I am questioing if I need to fact check all the articles you print.  Should I unsubscribe?  Why would you allow such a poorly researched article to appear on your pages?  I am saddened by your poor editing.

  • SculptorAlison
    Posted: Wed, 09/21/2016 08:21 pm

    What facts are you disputing here?

  • DC
    Posted: Wed, 09/21/2016 08:59 pm

    Sculptor Alison - I am questioning why Mr. Olasky would print an article from one of his writers who has ignored the facts of who is guilty and culpable in this situation. I am disappointed in myself for supporting and trusting World Mag for all these years.

  • Tessa
    Posted: Thu, 09/22/2016 09:23 am

    This is an opinion editorial after all. It is supposed to be opinion. 

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 09/21/2016 08:28 pm


    I remain of the belief that Paterno was a victim of stone-throwing.  We live in a world of procedures.  Bureaucracy is a funny thing:  you are the pet until you cross it; then you are the pariah.  Paterno may have had his feifdom, but feifdoms last only at the pleasure of the monarch.  It is easy for us to say that Paterno could have done more, and maybe that is true.  But we do not really know what might have happened if he had gone outside the chain of command.  (I do not think that PA law made Paterno a mandated reporter at the time, but I could be wrong.)  Maybe he could have pushed his weight around; maybe not.  The behavior of his superiors and the janitors' fear that they might lose their jobs indicate something unhealthy in the culture there.  (I would have made a big stink about it if I were one of the janitors, but I cannot bring myself to condemn them.)

    However, I agree with the general sense of the article, that Penn State should have been punished more severely, given the behavior of Paterno's superiors.

  • socialworker
    Posted: Thu, 09/22/2016 08:57 am

    Anonymous, you are avoiding the question.  What specific fact is Derrick ignoring in the article?  Is it that Paterno knew about the sexual abuse by 1976 or later in 1998?  Is it that he didn't do enough to stop it?  Are you disputing that Sandusky was guilty at all?  Those are about the only facts I see in the article.

  • Laneygirl's picture
    Posted: Fri, 09/23/2016 08:35 am

    And we thought College Football was a religion only here in the south. 

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 09:01 am

    J.C. You called that one.

    (I have little doubt I’ll be targeted again for this column.)

    I appreciate your article and opinion. I don't know enough details to say much more. But I appreciate you writing this. I appreciate Marvin Olasky not interfering. In fact I'm not sure why he would, but mention this since it was brought up. I'm sure there might be mitigating circumstances for Coach Peterno. But the facts seem hard to dispute. I'm not sure what PSU should have done in regards to his incredible coaching legacy. Nevertheless there are always lessons here for all of us. My heart goes out to everyone. Especially to those who were abused. I better stop here... though maybe I should mention the NCAA's hypocrisy and greed.

  • fulmin8r
    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 02:36 pm

    Wow, anything I say will be disregarded because I am a loyalist troll (Class of '86).  I served several years in the Human Services field helping victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.  The first thing I asked when this story was originally released was, "Did Paterno grasp what was being reported to him?"  When one considers his demographic, he is not a person who would be familiar with the important factors of child sexual abuse.  He is far from what would be a mandated reporter and likely had little understanding of what was being alleged.  I have often spoken to people of his generation who have little if any realization of the existance and horror of child sexual abuse.  Sandusky on the other hand is a perpetrator who needs fully punished.  Hopefully his appeals will all be denied and he will spend the remainder of his life in prison away from children.  Paterno on the other hand faced baseless accusations merely built on past associations with the closet child molester.  Every day we are surprised by the secrets disclosed about people close to us. Even the most discerning eye misses cues of evil and horror in our family, friends and neighbors.  I cannot see how Paterno is repeatedly implicated in this horrible crime.  I suppose once what was happening was described more explicitly, he was shocked and distressed.  Sadly, few have given that little old man the benefit of the doubt and have compared him to Satan personified.  The truth is with him in the grave now.  God have mercy on his soul.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 09/28/2016 02:03 pm

    I am with you, fulmin8r.  How many of us were surprised by the revelations about Bill Cosby, to cite another example?  Perpetrators can disguise themselves very well, and also know how to play the fears and prejudices of those who are closest to them.