COLUMN: How Joe Paterno let the castle he built consume him
Joe Paterno was once one of the most respected and revered coaches in college football, and his program was one of the most reputable in collegiate athletics. For nearly half a century, Happy Valley housed an institution that reflected the beauty and innocence of Mount Nittany and the green, foliaged hills that surrounded it.
Or so we thought.
When Paterno built the Penn State football program — his football program — from the ground up, he built a castle. High walls and a deep moat kept intruders out, and Paterno sat atop his throne, tucked away in what he led us to believe was some sort of utopia — a place where student took precedence over athlete and character was preached as often as fundamentals.
He had created a fortress. But brick and mortar are impenetrable from either side. And when Jerry Sandusky lit a fire from within that would consume a program and a university, the flame was trapped within those walls until everything inside had burned.
A legacy reduced to smoldering ash. Incinerated from the inside out.
All Paterno had to do was open the door, let someone in, point to Sandusky and say, “This is wrong. We don’t condone this. This isn’t what Penn State is about.”
But he couldn’t do it. Although Paterno’s pristine reputation would have been marred slightly, he could’ve saved his legacy, his job and, most importantly, innocent children from unspeakable trauma. If he just would have done a little damage control. If he just would have done the right thing.
These are the things of Oedipus and Thyestes, and JoePa fits the role of the tragic hero to a T. Here was a man so obsessed with how his legacy would define him that he allowed the most heinous of crimes to be committed under his watch and sheltered the man who committed them to avoid tarnishing his own name. A man thought to be morally upright and of high character swept one of the biggest scandals in the history of collegiate athletics under the rug to protect that reputation.
Irony of the most extreme degree.
So now, in retrospect, we have to ask ourselves: How did this happen? How can we keep it from happening again? Who is responsible for holding wrongdoers accountable when the powers that be refuse to do so?
Penn State is a perfect example of why the castle model is unacceptable for athletic programs or institutions of any kind. Transparency is of paramount importance, and when it is concealed, justice follows suit.
People rise to their feet to applaud the efforts of the watchdog journalist when he or she uncovers a political scandal or a government conspiracy, but in the world of sports, whenever journalists pry for information, it’s called intrusive or inconvenient. We’re digging up dirt, trying to cast someone in a bad light just to get a story. We’re too cynical.
This way of thinking has to change. The paradigm Penn State set is fatally flawed. It gave a coaching legend tyrannical power to limit access and filter information, allowing for abuse to continue for at least a decade longer than it should have. Yet, athletic departments around the nation are structured similarly to Penn State and present the same set of obstacles that prevented Sandusky’s atrocities from being discovered earlier.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from this ordeal, it’s that the current model for athletic departments needs to be reformed. Transparency and accountability go hand-in-hand, and justice can’t be served when partiality is protected.
Dillon Phillips is a journalism junior and assistant sports editor at The Daily. You can follow him on Twitter at @DillonPhillips_.