Bob Lutz: Joe Paterno creates downfall

11/12/2011 12:00 AM

11/12/2011 8:18 AM

Until this week, Joe Paterno was a great man. Not just a great football coach, a great man.

A leader of men. A revered and iconic figure nationally. A charitable, good-hearted soul.

But Paterno has been brought down. And those who are reluctant to adjust their views of Paterno as a coach and humanitarian are letting those of us in the media have it.

Who are we to judge from Mount High? How can we have known what we would have done in a similar circumstance?

It's been a fascinating week involving a terrible, terrible story at Penn State. Paterno's coaching career ended a few weeks shy of his 85th birthday, and it ended in shame because he failed to do more than pass along horrific news through the chain of command.

Many of us in the media, many of us who undoubtedly lead complicated moral lives, have been harsh with our judgments. Where so many of Paterno's supporters see gray, most of us who have written and spoken about these tragic events from a media perspective see black and white.

For me, it's open and shut that Paterno, given the news of Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual assault on a child in 2002, should have done more than go to his athlete director.

But there are those who are not convinced, those whose steadfast loyalty to Paterno won't allow them to see his fallacy. Those who believe Paterno did what he was required to do by law, and that that was enough.

The debate over Paterno has swallowed up the debate this sordid story should have sparked, which is what we as a nation should be doing about those who sexually assault children.

But Paterno is a national monument that first cracked, then crumbled.

No responsible media member has suggested Paterno broke any laws or that he should go to jail. But his failure to take his knowledge to law enforcement is a violation of most people's moral code.

If you learned that someone you are or were close to was sexually abusing children, would you go to the police no matter how uncomfortable it was? I have to believe the overwhelming majority would answer in the affirmative. I hope I'm not nai(uml)ve.

But there is no evidence that Paterno even went to Sandusky to inquire about what had gone on inside that Penn State football facility's shower room.

Given the inaction of so many others, it's difficult to discount the possibility of a massive cover-up by those in power at Penn State. That's the only hole into which the peg fits. As time goes on, more layers will be peeled.

It's interesting that so many people want this story to go away. Understandable given the vile nature of the topic. But my sense is that most want it to go away because they want the media to move on to something else in this Next Big Story society.

But to what else, exactly?

This is the biggest scandal to ever rock college athletics. It has the potential to bring down a football program. It has already brought down one of the three or four most legendary coaches in college football history. And an entire athletic administration. And a university president.

The media has done an outstanding job with this prickly story. Sandusky, we must remember, has not been convicted of any of the 40 charges brought against him. His day in court is coming. So are the days in court for two former Penn State administrators who have been charged with lying to a grand jury.

But the media is only reporting this story, not making it. And those who are commenting on Paterno are doing so, I'm sure, with sadness and regret that such a perceived good man could make such an egregious error in judgment.

For every day he did nothing about Sandusky, though, Paterno stripped his image. What must have been going on inside his head? How could he rationalize such immoral behavior?

There is no complexity here. There are no other options for decent people.

Perhaps we will learn more about what Paterno was thinking. But he's almost 85 and I'm not sure he can get to what he was thinking.

His refusal to act forcefully on the knowledge he had could remain a mystery. A head-scratching, dumbfounding mystery.

So many are to blame for this, starting first and foremost with Sandusky. But Paterno is, was, Penn State. And until the past week, that was a good thing.

The media did not bring down Paterno. Paterno brought Paterno down. The media is just there to document the story.

About Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz has been The Eagle's sports columnist since 1996. A native of Derby, he has worked for the newspaper since 1974 and covered a variety of beats, from high schools to Wichita State to pro sports. If you want to get in good with him, mention the St. Louis Cardinals. Provided they're winning, of course.

Contact Bob at 316-268-6597 or

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