When I visited Penn State as a junior in high school, something about it felt like home. I was a small-town girl who liked the idea of anonymity at a college of nearly 40,000. I fell in love with the rows of elm trees, the collegiate beauty of Old Main, and the infectious pride that pulsed through State College.
I had never heard of any of you. Three of you weren’t there yet, and sorry, Coach Paterno, but I wasn’t a college football fan until I stepped on campus again for my freshman year. Don’t get me wrong, I drank the Kool-Aid fast: That first home game, an 81-0 trouncing of Cincinnati soaked in with the collective excitement of my new (and already dearest) friends and 100,000 others did it. I had a painted paw on my cheek and a fountain of Penn State pride welling in my chest. And then the game started.
Twenty-one years later, that fountain has not run dry. I’m writing to tell you that, not to make you feel better about the decisions you made that have spiraled my beloved alma mater down a disgusting drain of criminal lies and deceit, but to let you know my Penn State Pride has nothing to do with that, or with you.
And it never did. Which is why it’s particularly tragic that you did what you did, assuming you did it to save yourselves and your university’s good name, to protect your football program and your storied traditions of “success with honor.” Because, it turns out, you did it for nothing. You didn’t save a thing — not your university’s good name or its most visible representative, not your reputations or mine. You didn’t save my Penn State Pride because you didn’t own it in the first place.
And for all that wasted effort, you didn’t save a single child from the hell Sandusky was putting them through.
JoePa, when I think about how much good you did while at Penn State, my stance softens for a moment. I reflect on all the praise that has been heaped on you by former players over the years – in the media, in books, upon your firing, at your funeral. You changed a lot of lives for the better. Your “success with honor” mantra rang true for hundreds of former students whose futures and moral compasses were molded under your watch.
But it makes it even harder to swallow, that when it mattered – when it really, really mattered – you honored your fellow coach rather than a boy you apparently never even tried to find.
I do not sit on a moral high ground here, as I, like everyone, have failed myself and those I love from time to time. Also I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have life-size cardboard cutouts of my likeness, to be the face of not just a football team but an entire university. I cannot fathom how it feels to be revered to the point of idolatry. It must have been wonderful, and terrible, and burdensome, and confusing.
I don’t think you kept quiet about Sandusky to save those things, Joe. Perhaps you weren’t sure how serious it was, whatever Sandusky was rumored to be doing with little boys, and you didn’t want to risk a scandal over “horseplay” that could derail your players and coaches from focusing on football. Perhaps you didn’t want to imagine such a monster could have lived in the office beside yours for 30 years, so you chose not to. Perhaps you felt you’d told someone, so you weren’t obligated to tell anyone else.
I want to believe that maybe in your old age you were confused, that your memory failed you, that you didn’t really recall what happened in 1998 other than the fact that no charges were brought and no crime was said to have been committed. Maybe that was enough to allow you to feel like you could wipe things clean then, and again in 2001, and every day since that Saturday morning when McQueary came to your house and described how a young boy was sodomized by your former assistant coach.
I have a friend who asserts you were caring for me, and for him, and for the thousands more of us Penn Staters when you helped to decide the course of (in)action for Sandusky, when you didn’t ask who the child was or whether he was OK. “(JoePa) did it for the school,” my friend wrote to me yesterday. “For you and me and every one of the other trillion people that have pride and benefit from what he built. I’m not saying it was right or moral, but it was understandable. … He was protecting all of us.”
I want to make this clear to you and anyone else who reads this letter: You did not do it for me. And I don’t understand.
I suspect all four of you thought you were doing right by Sandusky. You thought you were doing right by the university you loved. You thought you were making tough choices that would be appreciated and never questioned by those who enjoyed the perks of being Penn Staters. You kept the donors coming, the money flowing, the skyboxes filled, and the victims unnamed. And in doing so, you helped to beef up the program that Sandusky used to coerce young boys to trust him and travel with him. Your hard work provided the bait the victims snatched up, one after another after another.
I am trying hard to pray for each of you, to soften my heart and work to understand the way the dominoes fell that brought us all to this point in our school’s history. It is not hard for me to see the moral failings of a single human, but shouldn’t there have been strength in numbers? Two, three, four of you — five with McQueary – all knowing the same thing, all rationalizing the same inaction, all showing great concern for the wrong person.
One thing is clear: This scandal has reinforced a basic truth that had become muffled beneath a stadium of deafening cheers — Penn State University is larger than a single man and more powerful than a single sport, but no more important than a single child. To move forward, we all must not only acknowledge that truth, but rebuild our entire system of checks and balances on it.
I have friends who are taking down their JoePa photos and scraping Penn State bumper stickers off their cars. I’m not doing that. Instead I’m pretending to send this letter, to allow some of my disappointment and resolve find a home outside my own head. I’m sure some will scoff at such pointless pretending. But I know you know how good it feels sometimes to pretend.
My pride in Penn State is founded on the education I received there, the friendships I formed there, and the memories I made there. Sure, football played a role, but I don’t have any answers on what should happen now in regards to sports. What I do have is a coffee mug, custom-made for me by some great friends, engraved with something you told me was your life’s philosophy when I interviewed you back in ’95, Joe. “Just be good people. Care for other people; life is more fun that way.” I believe you spent the majority of your life trying to do that.
This mug won’t find my trash can; it is even more precious to me now. Its words are a reminder of the human condition, of how we try and fail, sometimes miserably. May we all commit ourselves to caring for other people, more than we care for ourselves.
For The Glory,
Class of 1995