In June 2012, Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. Sandusky was an assistant coach of football at Pennsylvania State University. Sandusky’s arrest and conviction shocked the world of college athletics because of the severity of his crimes and the extent to which he may have been enabled by others. Beyond Sandusky, the case opened up investigations into how much university administrators and head coach Joe Paterno knew about Sandusky’s criminal activity, and whether or not they knowingly covered it up.
Paterno was the most victorious coach in the history of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) football. He was much beloved by Penn State fans, students, and alumni. While Sandusky clearly did wrong, many supporters did not want to see Paterno’s legacy tarnished. Paterno died from lung cancer at the age of 85 in January 2012, before Sandusky’s trial began. Prior to his death, in his final interview, Paterno described an incident involving Sandusky: Graduate assistant Mike McQueary informed Paterno that he had seen Sandusky in an inappropriate position with a boy in the locker room showers in 2001. Paterno said he was not sure what to do in the situation. He stated, “I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said ‘Hey we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?’ ‘Cause I didn’t know, you know… I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn’t feel adequate.” When asked if he knew anything about a 1998 police investigation into Sandusky’s activities, Paterno responded, “I had never heard a thing.”
An investigation into Penn State’s actions around Sandusky found that Penn State leaders showed “total and consistent disregard” for victims and covered up the assaults of a serial sexual predator as early as 1998. The investigation named Paterno, as well as university president Graham Spanier, senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz, and athletic director Tim Curley. In a separate 2016 lawsuit against Penn State, testimony by a victim of Sandusky indicated that Paterno knew of abuse as far back as 1976. Although the university reached a settlement with this victim, the evidence was not verified. Penn State president Eric Barron stated, “[It] also is important to reiterate that the alleged knowledge of former Penn State employees is not proved, and should not be treated as such. Some individuals deny the claims, and others are unable to defend themselves.”
Although Paterno’s exact role in allegations of cover-up remain debated, many supporters and family still wish to clear his name from any possible wrongdoing. Jay Paterno, Joe Paterno’s son, joined Penn State’s board, in part, to defend the legacy of his father. He stated, “At some point the administration needs to say, ‘We got it wrong,’.” Paterno continued, “The fact that my dad was unaware of what Jerry was, that shouldn’t be a scarlet letter.” While Penn State removed Paterno’s statue from the campus in 2012, the university commemorated the 50th anniversary of his first game as coach with a celebration in 2016.
Some students disagree with the continued commemoration of Paterno. In an op-ed in the student newspaper that reflected the opinion of several editors at the paper, student Lauren Davis wrote that the university “needed a reality check” after its announcement of the 2016 commemoration. She wrote, “This is our Penn State. It is a Penn State without Joe Paterno.” She added, “Those of us here now are beyond ready to move on.” Davis received hundreds of emails and comments, mostly negative and many written by alumni. She was called an idiot, a “clueless treacherous traitor,” and worse. One person wrote to her, “I hope God can forgive you for your actions, I sure the hell can’t.”
Penn State reported that, as of January 2018, the university has paid a total of over $109 million in settlements to Sandusky’s victims. In 2017, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment, probation, and fines. While debates about Paterno’s legacy continue at Penn State, many victims and their supporters believe these debates do little to heal wounds. Alycia Chambers, a psychologist whose 1998 report on Sandusky was ignored by police, stated, “All of this is hurtful to the victims. … People are too concerned about a dead man’s reputation and not thinking about what it would feel like to be a survivor of child abuse.” She continued, “He was a human being. He had a generous spirit. He did many good things. … But he was a human, not a saint.” In a statement before he was fired in 2011, Paterno said, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”