BY Art Thiel 06:52PM 11/09/2011

Thiel: Paterno fired — the only choice possible

Paterno’s own words shows he still thinks his presence is more valuable than his absence. Penn State needs to get him out the door — and forfeit the game Saturday as well.

After Joe Paterno said Wednesday that he would retire after the season, the Penn State Board of Trustees announced that it had voted to oust him immediately. Also fired was president Graham Spanier. / Photo courtesy of the NCAA

Finally, a good decision was made in Happy Valley: football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees  Wednesday night. The board finally recognized that seeing Paterno, who earlier Wednesday said he would retire after the season, being cheered Saturday during a game against Nebraska would cap a week of tragedy with absurdity.

Much as many want and need to hear from him, Paterno doesn’t get the gravity of this week. If he did, he wouldn’t have dreamed of subjecting his team and university to the spectacle of his presence at a game Saturday. Yes, it’s well understood that he is charged with no crime, and the charges against his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, are just charges, and much remains to be learned and blah, blah, blah.

This is not about the legal aspiration of due process, or its denial. It’s about Paterno’s longtime motto: “Success With Honor.”

The secret of Sandusky, apparently long-known by more than a few around the Penn State program, was kept by more than Paterno since 1998, according to the charging papers. And yet it took until 2011 before the depravity came to light, and took until late Wednesday before the board voted unanimously to do the right thing.

More than illegal, such a conspiracy is profoundly dishonorable. More than Paterno, it is a condemnation of the individuals with specific knowledge as well as the value system of big-time college sports that permitted the conspiracy to start, fester and infect more than Sandusky’s alleged victims.

In a statement earlier Wednesday, Paterno seemed to acknowledge Sandusky’s crimes, as well as his own culpability.

“This is a tragedy,” the statement read. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more. My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination.”

The commitment Paterno had was to “success with honor,” and he broke that commitment years ago. The commitment to the players and game Saturday has been rendered moot.

Whether due to age, hubris or the tottering empire around him seeking to save itself — or the idiot cohort of students who Tuesday night rambled through the streets of State College, PA., cheering the coach — Paterno did not understand what was happening.

His statement went on: “At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.”

Really, Joe? There was nothing more important the board could have done than securing your immediate dismissal. It’s way, way too late to make things easy on the board. In fact, Joe, you made it more difficult by continuing the appearance of obliviousness to the consequences of your inactions regarding Sandusky’s alleged actions, and the power of your empire to still dictate outcomes.

The point here is not to pile on a man in his dotage but to understand the power configuation at Penn State (and probably most other big-time football colleges) that permitted it. When Paterno told the grand jury that he reported to those above him the episode of sodomy between Sandusky and a boy in the shower, then did nothing further, it spoke to the mis-shapen nature of the college sports system — there is no one above Paterno at Penn State.

There are people with bigger titles, but none with more power. The issue was not necessarily that Paterno abused his power, as much as everyone around him benefited from it, including the non-athletic interests of the university.  So it was in the interests of everyone — with the exception of the victimized boys and their families — to preserve the status quo.

In that way, college sports are no different that any of the other corrupt institutions with which we’ve become familiar — Wall Street investment houses, Washington Mutual, Enron, Pentagon, etc. — where moral conscience comes in second.

The difference is that this is not national security or financial crime. It is a heinous set of acts in our university system where Western civilization aspires to flourish, not flounder. That’s not to say perfection and propriety is expectable, only that when something so vile occurs that it violates every Western law, custom and sensibility, outrage should be at its most intense in the place where young people are the most eager and vulnerable.

Yet for 13 years, some Penn State people and some in the community knew that a threat walked protected among them, and found a way to ignore the horror — all for the prestige, profile and money of big-time college sports.

Some of  us who make a part of our livings by being engaged with the college-sports machine can properly be called enablers. So can the consumers whose appetites for the delights of big-time college sports are ravenous, and thus lucrative to the schools and media partners.

So no, it’s just not Joe Paterno. But no one in the history of big-time college sports so regaled has become so suddenly disparaged, albeit for inaction rather than action. The consequences of this story will reverberate for years, and perhaps be the long-awaited catalyst to genuine college-sports reform. Paterno and Penn State needed to start the turn now.

Reform won’t happen until figures such as Paterno and schools such as Penn State are shocked into grasping the gravity of the depravity. It’s time for Paterno to go to school by leaving school.

The board should have taken one more step. By canceling the game game against Nebraska Saturday, the forfeiture would stand forever as the moment big-time college sports realized it was a runaway train.


  • SS/Vashon

    Thoughtful, insightful, clear headed and articulate. Thank you.

  • 1coolguy

    Excellent article Art.
    The chain of events here is simply implausable – that they are true is stunning. The one we are aware of, the assistant telling Paterno seeing the ex-coach in the shower with a young boy, both naked, and: 1/ The assistant not jacking up Sandusky rght then and there 2/ Paterno taking it in and not immediately confronting Sandusky 3/ The higher report, I presume the AD, not immediately taking action when Paterno informed him: Then after it all, to essentially sweep it under the rug and seemingly forget about it is astonishing.

    It’s my understanding Sandusky, who had retained his private office in the PSU athletic dept. after his 1999 retirement, continued having it after this incident!

    Geeeez – All of these men are losers in the court of public opinion and deservedly will never be able to re-coup any semblance of respect. It will be interesting to see who gets prison sentences, etc. Hopefully there is no statue of limitations for such acts.

  • Ted Van Dyk

    You’ve got it right in all respects, Art. 

  • red devil

    If ESPN had any brains they would televise something else, the game is toxic.

  • Cruddly

    I seem to remember Paterno being one of the real straight shooters among the elite coaches of college football.  This is what happens when a program loses sight of its original goals, and replaces them with a philosophy of self preservation at any cost.  Paterno should have retired 15 years ago.  The same powerful coach, even an allegedly good guy like Paterno, should never stay with the same program for that long a time.  He becomes almost Godlike and unapproachable.
    In a shorter period of time, Jim Owens achieved this kind of status.  Back in the 60’s, when this was basically a one sport town, Owens was King.  By the mid-sixties the Husky program under Owens, who was also Athletic Director, was far from what it once had been.  They truly sucked.  Suddenly reports of racial discrimination began to pop up.  Then African American players on the team began to openly protest their treatment by the coaching staff.  For the first time, reporters and Husky supporters began to speak openly of whether or not Owens should get canned.  The truth was that Owens and his staff had got away with this racist behavior for years, but he was such a powerful figure in Seattle that it had always been swept under the rug.  
    Changing times and losing seasons finally brought the matter to light.  Owens always appeared baffled at at these charges, even though he committed himself and his staff to rectifying the situation.  But I believe his bewildered reaction to the racist charges against him was not an act — it was a normal reaction from someone who resided in an ivory tower.

  • J4hansen

    I love Mr Thiel’s writing and I agree on most everything in this column.  The part I don’t agree with is the cancelling of the game.  To me, the ‘game’ of football is a separate issue to this terrible event.  There are some 50 men involved in this game that had nothing to do with what happen in 2002 and beyond, who have given everything of themselves to prepare for this game.  For the seniors, it’s their last game in that stadium and so cancelling the game is a punishment to them, and to what end?  I can certainly agree not to televise the game.  It will probably be a circus with the TV people, little of which will be about the game.  I also do not think the receivers coach should be on the sidelines, nor even on the team.

  • So much for due process hey Art?  The court of holier than thou wins again

    • Anonymous

      Jeff, the stuff that Joe himself testified to is more than enough to support his firing. Doing the bare minimum after learning what his graduate assistant coach directly witnessed isn’t good enough. Never following up, and allowing Sandusky to continue to bring little boys around the facilities, is inexcusable.

      He’ll get his due process if there are legal proceedings. But he has no business coaching.

  • headoutofsand

    So many resonant points in this column, and the forfeit idea makes a ton of sense.  Could still happen.  No wonder a long line of successful college coaches have felt/acted like entitled, omnipotent kings — way too many of their blindly loyal subjects (spectators, broadcasters, writers, etc.) have genuflected so deeply to them.  

  • witchhunt

    • Cruddly

      The term “witch hunt” normally pertains to a situation where a group of people are unfairly prosecuted for either participating or conspiring to commit a crime, or some act perceived to be evil.  Flimsy evidence, false testimony and questionable witnesses are used to support the charges. Their accusers use demagoguery (see Glen Beck) to fuel the public’s fears and paranoia in order to circumvent the law, and guarantee convictions.   Anyone one who dares publicly to oppose this process risks becoming the prosecution’s next target. 
      Do you really think that is what is going on here?