(No doubt this will be one of the least popular opinions I've ever posted to this site. Ah well.)
Nothing like a healthy dose of moral indignation to lead to a rush to judgment.
If the allegations about Jerry Sandusky are anywhere close to true, the man is an evil predator and deserves the punishment that is surely coming to him. I don't know if the allegations are true; that's what a trial is for.
What I do know is that the witch hunt against Joe Paterno and (at the time) graduate assistant Mike McQueary is being conducted in the absence of facts and with a good dose of hindsight. At the risk of introducing a sports metaphor, this is Monday morning quarterbacking at its worst.
A quick review of what we know:
- In the late 90s, long-time Penn State defensive coordinator Sandusky comes under investigation for child abuse. No charges are filed.
- In 1999, Sandusky leaves the coaching staff at Penn State, though he retains an office on campus as part of a retirement package.
- In 2002, McQueary reportedly sees Sandusky and a child in the locker room. What he sees isn't exactly clear, but he's disturbed enough to report the encounter to his boss, Coach Paterno. Paterno, carrying out his legal responsibility, informs his boss, Tim Curley, the athletic director, and Gary Schultz, the VP who oversaw campus police. Apparently neither Curley nor Schultz actually contact the police, as they were required by law to do.
- After a lengthy investigation, on Nov. 5, Sandusky was charged with sexual abuse of eight minors and Schultz and Curley are charged with perjury before the grand jury. Paterno is not charged.
- The media outcry shortly takes Paterno's job and that of university president Graham Spanier. Pennsylvania's governor - who, I might add, as the state attorney general, started investigating Sandusky but did not charge him - adds that Paterno failed in his "moral duty" to do more in 2002.
The witch hunt crowd claims that Paterno, and by extension the rest of the football team's coaching staff and the university administration, ignored evidence of child abuse in order to protect the team and the university's reputation. If true, this is terrible.
But is it true? What is the evidence that anyone in the university knew of a crime before 2002? Sandusky's sudden retirement seems suspicious, but doesn't that seem like an episode where the university had suspicions, couldn't prove anything, and wanted to get the man off the payroll as soon as possible? His on-campus office sounds like the sort of perk that retired professors and such usually get. Recall that the police did investigate Sandusky around that time and couldn't find evidence of a crime. Under the circumstances, getting rid of the guy discretely doesn't seem like a bad idea.
Turning to the 2002 incident, both McQueary and Paterno did what they needed to do. (Should McQueary have done more at the time? Maybe. I don't know what he saw, whether he could have done something at the time, or even what I would have done as a 22-year-old graduate assistant. The point is that, by the next day, he told his boss.) The outcry is that Paterno didn't do more than what the law required. According to these critics, he should have called the police himself. Really? In my organization, I'd call the police in a heartbeat if someone were in danger, but afterward, I'd let people above me in the food chain take care of it. Of course, I'm not a legendary coach, but neither are Paterno's critics. Those critics also claim that he should have followed up with Curley and Schultz about the alleged attack. Maybe. That's a tougher call. It's hard to imagine that a normal person wouldn't have said at some point, "Hey, Tim, whatever happened to that allegation that McQueary made against Sandusky?" Again, though, we don't know what happened, who said what, or what was in anyone's mind.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but, at the time, what would those critics have done? The crime was terrible. A coverup would be nearly as bad. Being scared is natural, though, and concern over the fallout from a scandal is a scary thing.
Football players who have been coached by Paterno over the decades have said (both before this scandal broke and since then) that his coaching went beyond the football field and extended to how players should conduct themselves both on and off the field. These players spoke of Paterno's desire that they do things the "right way," the morally correct way. This doesn't sound to me like the kind of person who would engage in a cover-up of serious crimes against children for the purpose of protecting the reputation of the team or the university. Of course, I could be wrong. People can change. Power can become corrupting. If so, I'll admit to being wrong in my judgment. In the meanwhile, I'm inclined to give the man the benefit of the doubt. I think he's earned it.
In time, many of the facts will emerge. Perhaps the critics will turn out to be right. It seems a shame to destroy reputations and careers on innuendo and Monday morning quarterbacking, however.