Joe Paterno and the Sick Logic of College Football

After 46 seasons coaching at Penn State University, Coach Joe Paterno now faces a crisis that could burn the storied football program to the ground. And if recent charges are true, his legacy deserves to burn to along with it. For those who haven’t heard, longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky, 67, who coached the vaunted Nittany Lions defense for 23 years, has been charged with 40 sex crimes against boys dating from 1994 to 2005. All of the minors were under the care of Sandusky’s charity for impoverished youth, “The Second Mile Foundation”, which Sandusky founded in 1977. As the grand jury presentment stated: "Through The Second Mile, Sandusky had access to hundreds of boys, many of whom were vulnerable due to their social situations." Sandusky is denying all charges through his attorney, but the grand jury report is a damning and detailed account of a man exercising his power and authority to rape young boys.

On one level, it’s a horror story we’ve heard before: vulnerable children become targets for the very people trusted with their care. But this case is far, far worse, because it could have been stopped in time to spare future victims. It could have been stopped, but it wasn’t because the image of Joe Paterno Nittany Lion Football was deemed more important than the children at risk.

The grand jury summation describes one scene where Sandusky was caught raping 10-year-old “Victim Number 2” in the Penn State football team shower. The graduate student who witnessed it was “distraught” and “traumatized”. Did he go to the police? No, he went directly to Joe Paterno’s home. Paterno immediately turned the matter over to Athletic Director Tim Curley, and for reasons I don’t understand, Gary Schultz, the senior vice president of finance and business. Curley and Schultz conferred and acted. According to the grand jury report, they sat Sandusky down and said that he could no longer use Penn State football facilities while accompanied by Second Mile children. That’s it. Pennsylvania state law requires Curley, Schultz and Paterno to have reported the charges to the police. They didn’t. [Curley and Schultz are being charged with perjury and obstruction. Paterno is not.]

Curley even admitted to the grand jury that he "advised Sandusky that he was prohibited from bringing youth onto the Penn State campus from that point forward." Yet as reported, even this “punishment” was fictional. As late as 2009, Sandusky was on campus running a sleep-away camp for boys as young as nine years old. One alleged victim told the grand jury that Sandusky brought him to a Penn State preseason practice in 2007—a full five years after Paterno was made aware of the shower rape. This is why it’s hard to take seriously Paterno’s statement on Sunday, where he said,“If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.”

We are past prayer and into the realm of criminal negligence – [and the major players are circling the wagons. Sunday night, after an emergency meeting of the Penn State Board of Trustees, Curley requested to be placed on administrative leave so he could devote himself full-time to his defense Schultz also announced he would be retiring, effective immediately.] I agree with the Washington Post’s Mike Wise, who wrote, “They would all be party to a worse crime than any crooked, pay-for-play booster at Miami, Ohio State or even SMU ever committed: guilty of protecting a program before a child.” But at the same time I would argue that the connective tissue between benign booster scandals and this monstrous state of affairs are more substantial than people want to admit. It’s connected to the Bowl Championship Series, “conference realignment” and all the ways in which college football has morphed over the last generation into a multi-billion dollar big business. This isn’t about Sandusky. This is about a culture that says the football team must be defended at all costs: a culture where the sexual assault of a 10 year old is reported to Paterno before the police.

This is what happens when a football program becomes the economic and spiritual heartbeat of an entire section of a state. The Nittany Lions football regularly draws 100,000 fans to Happy Valley. They also produce $50 million in pure profit for the University every year and has been listed as the most valuable team in the Big 10 conference. Another economic report held that every Penn State game pumps $59 million into the local economy: from hotels to kids selling homemade cookies by the side of the road. It's no wonder that Paterno is revered. He took a football team and turned it into an economic life raft for a university and a region. When something becomes that valuable, a certain mindset kicks in. Protect the team above all over concerns. Protect Joe Pa. Protect Nittany Lions football. Protect the brand. In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company.

Penn State has never been an “outlaw program”. It's what every school aspires to become. Think about that. Every school aspires to be the kind of place where football is so valuable that children can become collateral damage. If the allegations are true, if the school in fact knew this was going on, then the program should be shut down. If the allegations are true, Joe Paterno should be instructed to take his 46 years and 409 wins, and leave in disgrace. It’s tragic that it’s come to this for a legend like Paterno. But it’s even more tragic that protecting his legend mattered more than stopping a child rapist in their midst. Damn Sandusky. Damn Paterno. Damn Penn State. But above all, damn the fact that the billion-dollar logic of big-time college football leads to decisions as venal as those made in Happy Valley.

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Penn State

I always enjoy your writings Dave. Keep up the fine work. My question is who eventually came forward to the authorities? Do we know?


Hey, Dave, good strong article. Look, one of the reasons that PSU athletic director Curley reported all to the PSU Senior VP of admin and finance, Schultz, is likely because the senior VP of admin and finance is the guy who runs much of the university. The President is a PR head, fundraiser, university cheeleader. The Senior VP of Admin and Finance is the guy who makes the trains run on time, determines what the budget is and will be and how to meet it, largely, and reports such bottom-line matters to the Board of Governors. Pres is PR; VP of A and F is the real operator, even though he is personality type of a toad. He fills the role of a Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney lite in personality but nevertheless the institutional role of Dick Cheney. Pres is like Bush-Clinton-Obama. At least, that's how it is here in Morgantown at WVU. I have FOIAed (Freedom Of Information Act) these guys repeatedly on educational matters. Senior VP of Admin and Finance here is Narvel Weese, more of a toad, like Schultz, than a Darth Cheney but performs the same function of main string puller. Draws the lines in the sand, and is the chief cheerleader and supporter of the public face, the Pres.

Occasionally the President's Chief of Staff will do the dirty work, personal favor stuff, but the institutional dirty worker is the VP of Admin and Finance.

Hasn't it been reported that a mother of one of the victims kicked all this into motion?

No suprise

Corrupt and imoral systems breed this kind of behavior, major college sports will always be about profits and image before people.

And lets not Forget . . .

No doubt, Dave is right. But I smell something more and just as odious in this case. And that is White privilege or, to be more exact, White Supremacy . I am willing to bet my bottom dollar if Sandusky was a black fella he likely would not have gotten away with what he allegedly did for so many years.

Yes, protecting the football program was key but social experiments show similar actions look different to people depending on the color of your skin (for what I mean, see here : I'll never forget, in that regard, the Jeffrey Dahmer case. When a resident of the Black neighborhood was being interviewed by a reporter, she exasperatingly said "we've (meaning the neighborhood) been complaining about him for years." But, it was only when he started targeting the more pale skinned that the authorities decided to catch up to him.

Yeah, crude racism (except, apparently, for Tiger's former caddy) has largely disappeared. However the wages of whiteness have not. By and large no white person is going to be as crudely racist as Tiger's former caddie. But in situations like at Penn state it'll be like the old quip: "do you believe me or your lying eyes?" Apparently, at Penn State, the eyes don't have it.

Even the media coverage is decidedly even keeled. Unlike the way the Central Park jogger kids, who it turns out were INNOCENT all along, the media, Dave aside, is not going to the Nth degree demonizing neither the alleged perpetrator or Penn State. What is going to happen is that Sandusky will be fed to the wolves, albeit with some TLC, the victim's victimization will be treated low key, Paterno will emerge a bit scuffed up reputation wise but hey, how about those Nittany Lions(sic)!

Say It Ain't So Joe Pa

Unfortunately, it is looking like he had knowledge of this sad affair and didn't report it to the legal authorities.

We treat people like Joe Pa like kings. Today most of them are the highest paid state employee. I would bet Joe Pa is in the state he works for. Yet all they are doing is coaching a season sports team for the public university. At a time when public employees are being portrayed as unbearable fiscal burdens on state budgets, college football and men's basketball coaches are being made into millionaires for coaching "amateur" sports teams. There is always more money for these guys, and tuition increases for the general student body, who are attending to the university for its ostensible purpose, which is education.

The more I hear of these scandals involving big time college sports, the more I think of Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Player Piano". He wrote it in 1952. It's about an imaginary future where nobody has any work because machines can do everything. Yet in passing there is a scene e at a bar where college football players hang out. I believe they played for both Princeton and Harvard. They were paid professional football players, and if I remember correctly they weren't even necessarily students at the universities they played at. It's interesting that this scene was inserted into the novel, but it was very prescient. Today the athletes aren't paid professionals, but they might as well be.

Amen (AH-MEN)

Every one of you are right on!!

Victimized more than once

DZ is correct that we are past prayers. The Deadspin article "Why Good Fail To Do The Right Thing" is the the best "explanation" of the PSU mess. The article tries to illustrate why invariably people will choose to CYA and protect their jobs rather than do the right thing. I have wondered if the victims(1-8 and probably many more) were relatives of Joe Pa(ironic isn't it),AD Curley, say it was their sons/grandsons being sodomized would they notify the police? The victims were violated first by Sandusky and again by the powers that be.

Penn State compared to the catholic church

This reeks just like the child abuse scandal and bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City, MO.

Paterno, like Finn, needs to go to jail.

He put a freeking football program ahead of the safety of our children.

Personal Responsibility

Agree with what everyone has said.

One question I haven't heard yet - why didn't the grad asst., who was (quite understandably) “distraught” and “traumatized”, physically intervene to stop a rape in progress? Isn't that the responsibility of any adult, not just going to Paterno, not just going to the police (which he failed to do), but stopping the crime?

/of course, I don't mean to lessen the crimes of higher ups and throw the low guy on the totem pole under the bus; still . . . .

Shame in Happy Valley

Dave, doesn't it further lend credence to your argument that this comes out only after Paterno passes Grambling's Eddie Robinson in career wins, despite the fact that this evidence has been assembled for quite some time? This whole affair and the university officials are beyond contempt.

sad all around

as a former college athlete and child rape survivor, this is a sad, sad nexus.

sometimes it's hard to read DZ's articles because the truth cuts really deep.

White supremacy, racism...and all the garbage

Good job Dave. And Johnny Q who comments above, you hit the nail on the head..thank you, white supremacy, white skin privelige plays an ugly role in virtually everything that happens in America and this case is no exception.

College football is sick

This case is terrible, but I just want to remind everyone of another incident that occurred last year.

Due to the gross negligence of Brian Kelly a student died at a Notre Dame Practice.

Not only has he not been charged criminally, he STILL HAS HIS JOB?!?!?!?!?!?

Joe Pa

How many times do you think he has preached accountability to some 19 year old kid?

Sandusky's Auto, Rally For Joe Pa

Turns out the accused perp, Jerry Sandusky, has an autobiography titled "Touched". No joke:

"Gropey Old Man" is more like it. I hear a follow containing all the omissions from the first one will be titled "Scoring With The Boys In The Shower".

If you want to see grossness on display, check out the coverage of the rally for Joe Pa at the PSU student paper:

Penn State scandal, Zirin's column

Where does the $50 million pure profit number come from? How does the University, not community businesses, profit from six home games per year? Does the athletic department transfer funds regularly (or ever) to the University's general fund? I think these questions are worth another column, especially since you claim that money is the ultimate cause for neglect to notify police.


If it were up to me pedophiles would be executed in public. If you think that is too harsh, consider that a murder victim is dead and gone but that 10 year old child has to live with the memory of what was done to him for the next 60 years.
Records show that a small percentage of sexual predators can be rehabilitated but almost all child molesters reoffend. Get a rope!

Sick, indeed.

I keep thinking about a report I read in the New York Times last Sunday about Daniel Vilca, who recently received a life sentence for 454 counts of possessing child pornography - one count for each incriminating image on his computer. Let me get this straight: for indirectly contributing to the abuse of children by consuming child pornography, Vilca gets a sentence similar to that of a first degree murderer. But Paterno, who was in a position to directly intervene in the sexual abuse of children by someone he knew personally and professionally is not being investigated for his negligence. The biggest repercussion might be an early retirement and the tarnishing of a legacy. This is outrageous and I am especially disturbed as a sports fan that loves the game but hates the culture.

‘Show me a capitalist and I’ll show you a bloodsucker’

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Capitalism has never had a problem with the exploitation of anything-- Kids included.


Thanks for a great piece Dave. It is interesting that the grad assistant told the grand jury that he told Paterno "what he had seen" [in the shower], but now JoPa is spinning that he wasn't aware that there had been a sexual assault. How many 'coach with boy in shower' incidents does he need to be suspicious?Makes you wonder if the local prosecutor is giving Paterno a pass. Call me a dreamer, but how great would it be to see some of the Penn State athletes refuse to play if he is still coaching on Saturday.

And lets not Forget . . . More

Looks like I was wrong. They really must be feeling some kind of heat for them to unceremoniously oust Paterno. Apparently, he still wanted to go out on his own terms.
Though the race angle is important, I caution others not to overstate it. The main thing in this case is the football program and more specifically that it is a major anchor for the economy in that part of the state. As someone once said "it is hard to make a man see the truth when his salary depends on him doing the opposite."
Something else, everyone should remember, and this is not to excuse the behavior of the eyewitness to Sandusky's assault on a child, or Paterno and the University, but I would imagine someone coming across a scene of an adult performing fellatio on a child would likely be shocked to the extreme. Left speechless I would say. Couple that with the stature of the perpetrator, and, of course, the power that football program has over the psyche of almost everyone in that part of the State and you have all the conditions necessary for blind denial of anything that might endanger the status quo.
In that sense, it mirrors the notion of American Exceptionalism that pervades this society and holds that this country can do no wrong. Everything this country does from killing innocent Afghanis, leveling whole cities like Fallujah to torturing prisoners at Guantanamo and trying to silence Assange, all come from good intentions. After all, America just wants to spread freedom and Democracy (sic). Thus, instead of recognizing these truths many, not all, make themselves willfully blind. The truth is simply too difficult to bear and moreover, material interests militate against seeing the emperor has no clothes. Again, not too much different than what’s happened at Penn State.
Also keep in mind, that as bad as this case is, for the last decade we've had monumental crimes being committed (think Wall Street) and no one (besides Madoff who was thrown to the wolves as both sacrificial lamb and made an example of because he preyed on his own class instead of just the 99%), has been held to account. So you cannot totally blame someone for thinking, yeah this is just another powerful person who'll get away with murder because of who he is and then me, the whistle blower, will wind up being nailed to the cross (just ask Assange).
Nevertheless, honor and duty requires one to speak truth even if it costs one’s life. Beyond the horror of the crime itself, the fact that nobody said anything for literally years is simply mind-boggling. What a travesty.

An Unceremonious Farewell For Joe Pa

But there really was no other course of action than to fire both Joe Pa and PSU President Graham Spanier. Just observe this fawning interview of Sandusky about his charity during a Penn State game broadcast, and tell me that PSU wasn't enabling him:

This is a classic case of an institutional cover up of criminal wrong doing, and the NCAA needs to sanction the PSU football program in some way for this. If they're going to make a "scandal" over something as trivial as Ohio State players trading memorabilia for tattoos, then they surely have to do something about this.

I Know It's Creepy to Bring This Up, But.....

Sandusky has six children, all of whom are adopted and all of whom are...male

Defamation of Character

Joe Paterno had no reporting duty under PA Law. Here's the statute: 16.102(b): "Staff members of public or private agencies, institutions and facilities. Board regulated practitioners who are staff members of a medical or other public or private institution, school, facility or agency, and who, in the course of their employment, occupation or practice of their profession, come into contact with children shall immediately notify the person in charge of the institution, school, facility or agency or the designated agent of the person in charge when they have reasonable cause to suspect on the basis of their professional or other training or experience, that a child coming before them in their professional or official capacity is a victim of child abuse. Upon notification by the Board regulated practitioner, the person in charge or the designated agent shall assume the responsibility and have the legal obligation to report or cause a report to be made in accordance with subsections (a), (c) and (d)." The author of this article is the only one that has committed a crime (defamation/libel) between him and Paterno.

This is not a "football" problem, this is our culture.

It's difficult to believe that Paterno, and more importantly, the Penn State admin didn't consider the football program when considering sweeping this problem under the carpet--and of course they considered it. But, this isn't a football problem. Every major organization that interacts with children has to decide if bringing their employee's shortcomings out into the open is worth the community backlash. I train school and church employees and administrators on boundary setting and appropriate behavior and this sort of thing is all too common. More often than not, people unfortunately look the other way. More often than not, institutions are protected and children's safety takes a back seat. This problem is not about football, it's about how we--as a culture--deal with child abuse.

Who edits these articles?

I should have stopped reading when I saw the errors in the sentence, "And if recent charges are true, his legacy deserves to burn to along with it". Unfortunately the hope of an intelligent read continued to turn into run on sentences, bad punctuation, and rambling thoughts.

It is sad someone gets paid for such drivel.


It is not creepy, it is frightening. You are right and this should be number 1 on the investigators list!
This "coach" and his story can only get worse, much, much worse.


It's funny that those who try to defend Paterno only attempt to do so on legal rather than moral grounds, or even stoop to critiquing grammar mistakes.

I notice Joe Pa just hired a criminal defense lawyer rather than someone who is good at suing for damages. What does that tell ya?

To You on the Frontline

The role of the journalist is becoming more and more difficult and I commend you once again for your ability to stand on the frontline and speak truth. As I have followed this madness I have found a strong need to turn away because sometimes it is just to painful to look at what we have co-created in our culture and in our world. I thank you for continuing to shine the light in dark places. I thank you for illuminating that darkness in a way that does not allow truth seekers to turn away; but forces us all to steel our hearts and spirits to look at and seek to create a world where even the smallest and most vulnerable are safe.

To You on the Frontline

The role of the journalist is becoming more and more difficult and I commend you once again for your ability to stand on the frontline and speak truth. As I have followed this madness I have found a strong need to turn away because sometimes it is just to painful to look at what we have co-created in our culture and in our world. I thank you for continuing to shine the light in dark places. I thank you for illuminating that darkness in a way that does not allow truth seekers to turn away; but forces us all to steel our hearts and spirits to look at and seek to create a world where even the smallest and most vulnerable are safe.

Sensitive Subject

Please understand that in no way do I condone child abuse (sexual or otherwise). But someone has to point out that it is the "third rail" of issues if ever there was one. Now that Paterno has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion -- and by the trustees of PSU -- perhaps the point is moot. Maybe I'm the only one who finds the circumstances of the alleged case bizarre -- a coach openly abusing children in a locker-room shower? Perhaps I'm thinking of the many notorious cases of the past several decades when people have been locked away for nearly magical crimes of abusing hundreds of children in daycare centers, a situation some have compared to witchcraft. Maybe I'm wondering about the commenter above who says that PA statutes do not define what Paterno did as a crime.'s not right to call it the "third rail." More like "the kiss of death" (sorry, pun intended). Are there no other possible explanations?

Again, please understand I have no interest in defending Joe Paterno. I couldn't give a damn about college football. It is a multibillion dollar business, with all the garbage that entails.

But I also think to use this bizarre case as a blanket indictment of college football seems opportunistic and unnecessary.

"Joe Paterno and the Sick Logic of College Football"

Great article, Dave! This criminal cover up of a child rapist should be condemned in the strongest terms. The only thing I would change in your piece is the idea that Joe Paterno should leave in disgrace. He should be criminally prosecuted! Why should positions of power and prestige get a pass when implicated in this type of cover up?

Thank you for writing this article

Thank you for writing this article- Child sexual abuse and sexualized violence is so often excused, ignored, and covered up in our society- especially when perpetrated by well known and prestigious men. I have seen things like this happen many times- not just in sports but in many other areas as well. I really appreciate your perspective on this.

capitalism over humanism

Its just so damn creepy that Sandusky established organizations to help youth as an obvious cover to his true intentions. It seems so many organizations for children are the cover for this horrific and damaging behavior-Churches have done the same. The boys had no significance in the power machine of college ball for profits. These boys were collateral damage and meant nothing to any of the men who raked in their salaries and enjoyed their lavish lifestyles all on the expense of other vulnerable young humans who had no voice. Down with the sickness that plagues our sports industry and down with those who do not value life. Down with Paterno and all his sick cronies. I am totally disgusted.

Joe Pa

Excellent analysis. But I would take one exception with "It’s tragic that it’s come to this for a legend like Paterno". Not tragic at all - he brought it on himself and deserves every penalty coming his way. He was an enabler who knew what was going on and helped to bury it within the institution.

Structural/Institutional Power

It would be interesting to expand on institutional power and its manifestations across the board with Penn State. How about ex-basketball coach Rene Portland and Penn State turning a blind eye to her violations of anti-discriminatory laws? It would be interesting to see an analysis of this over a broad spectrum of events.

Disagree, more and more

I never, ever thought I'd say this, but David Brooks is the one who's got it right (ugh). We all get to be morally superior (ick). Et tu, Dave? I'm afraid so. What if the next pedophile is the Good Humor man down the block. Are we all going to rail against the corrupt ice cream system.


Re: JP n the sic logic..

This is what happens when a leisurely passtime turns into idolatry - All common decency and judgement cease. Society at large is responsible for the golden calf that is Penn State Football. Let's put in the correct order people - We answer to God first, all others second..

JoePa has blood on his hands, even more so than Sandusky. The conscious enabler is worse than the sick perpetrator. He had his hand on the control button. God have mercy on them both, and on us all.
Reconcile yourself with Christ while there is still time. What sin have you covered up? What golden calf have you erected to the demise of what God values?

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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