General Litigation

Joe Pa Had to Go

The child sex abuse scandal at Penn State forced the University’s hand and they fired long time head-coaching icon Joe Paterno last night. He had agreed to resign at the end of the season but that was not soon enough for PSU. They were right. And to those hundreds of students protesting and chanting “One More Game” for Joe to stay to coach this year’s season ending home game against Nebraska, this weekend, I can only say this “What are they teaching you there?” My son who is a senior at PSU and bleeds Nittany Lion blue is devastated over this of course but had told me early on that Joe had to go.

Let’s get this straight – Paterno coaches football. He does not cure people, he does not fight fires, he does not lead a nation. He gets very highly paid to a particular job which he does particularly well – he is a legend, no question about it. But he is a coaching legend. Let’s keep some perspective here. It is crazy that as an afterthought all the news channels are adding that Graham Spanier,the President of the University, was also asked to step down. The Board of Trustees’ decision to end the careers of these two individuals was unanimous. It was also a no brainer.

As lawyers who get involved in representing institutions and individuals facing these kind of situations know, crisis management requires both short term and long term decisions to help get your client back on track. Call it “spin” or ‘damage control” or “reputation management” any phrase you like, its important to get public perception back in your favor as much as possible by showing that you are addressing the situation seriously. Been there, done that. But that is not what I am talking about. This decision was a no brainer because of the reprehensible actions of Paterno and others at PSU that turned a deaf ear and blind eye to defensive coordinator’s Joseph Sandusky’s pattern of child abuse. Back in 1992 (nearly 20 years ago) an assistant coach came upon Sandusky and a 10 year old boy in the PSU locker room shower. The assistant testified before a grand jury that he observed them having anal intercourse. He told his Dad and then told Joe Paterno. Paterno now states that he was only told of “fondling” and “grappling” not sex which is why all he did was tell the Athletic Director at the time. I don’t believe Paterno, but lets give him the benefit of the doubt. Your defensive coordinator was naked in the PSU locker with a 10 year old child. He may have been “fondling” and “grappling” with the child. You don’t call the police to investigate? You don’t follow up with Sandusky personally? You allow him to continue coaching right next to you without explaining his conduct? Ridiculous. Inexcusable. Indefensible. Especially when you consider that Pennsylvania, like most other states, has a mandatory reporting law that requires educators to report suspected child abuse to the appropriate governmental authorities. But who needs a law to tell them you should report someone behaving inappropriately with a 10 year old child. That the person would do so in a public place like the PSU locker room shows how far gone his behavior has gone. This is someone practically begging to be caught or so out of control that his judgment is totally off kilter.

But Paterno’s and other’s decision to look the other way allowed Sandusky to continue to abuse children. What can PSU ever do to undo that harm? Nothing. Sure they will be sued, but a child abuse victim never fully recovers; its a lifelong scar that often perpetuates similar behavior so the cycle never ends. PSU will be left scarred as well. But these students who are upset that Joe was not allowed to coach the last home football game of the season should put themselves in the place of the abused kids and their parents who undoubtedly think Joe Pa has already coached more games than he should have.

In 1901,Penn State Professor Fred Lewis Pattee wrote the school’s official song “Dear Old State.” All of the administrators, coaches, staff and students involved in this tragedy would do well to read the last verse of the song:

May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.

3 replies on “Joe Pa Had to Go”

Mr Michelen, thank you for your writings. You are very good at what you do.
You get to the heart of the matter quickly and succinctly.

Your conclusions are premised on at least one demonstrably incorrect fact (that Paterno knew of abuse by Sandusky but allowed him to continue coaching) and other facts are given short shrift. There are now allegations of abuse by Sandusky in 1992 but the grand jury testimony as it related to Paterno pertained to a 2002 event (the shower abuse allegedly witnessed by a graduate assistant) after Sandusky had retired.

Paterno received an eyewitness account from a graduate assistant. The exact nature of what Paterno was told has not been established. However Paterno thereafter could have at best related hearsay on the truth of the matter asserted (sexual penetration or touching of a boy by Sandusky). The best witness testimony was that of the assistant.

After the report from his graduate assistant, Paterno first contacted the Athletic Director (on a weekend; he did not wait until Monday AM but I would note that by the time Paterno received the report there were no apparent exigent circumstances). However thereafter Paterno attended a meeting with the witness and the university Vice President having administrative authority over the Penn State police. The State College police have stated that they have no jurisdiction over criminal offenses on campus. So Paterno did not call 911 and put his assistant on the phone but he did bring the witness account to a higher level official who had the power to guarantee an investigation. If you report a crime to a police commissioner or mayor, is that not just as legally sufficient as filing a report with the police department?

As for Pennsylvania’s child abuse reporting requirements, the statute is not nearly as clear as others I have seen. I read several weeks ago that the defense was apparently making an argument that the statute does not apply to University administrators as they do not routinely or regularly come into contact with children. Moreover, Paterno was serving as a cooperating prosecution witness and I understood that the law enforcement consensus was that his report to university superiors were considered to have discharged his legal obligation (assuming that the statute did apply to him).

There are mixed reports that Paterno was aware of the earlier charges as well and that those allegations were the reasons Sandusky left PSU. Either way, it seems Paterno could have done more to ascertain what happened and could have taken more steps to make sure law enforcement was involved. I hope that all of these issues will be addressed in the courtroom and that reliable evidence will be presented to determine what if anything happened and who if anyone knew about it.

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