Greg Jayne: Paterno is out, but tragedy lingers

Commentary: Greg Jayne

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Joe Paterno is out at Penn State, told by the board of trustees that, “you can’t quit, you’re fired.”

So is the university president. So is the athletic director. So is a university vice president. Throw in the dismissal of an iconic football coach, and the extraordinary reach of the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State becomes clear.

The tentacles of blame and accountability have spared no victims — not that they should.

This was the only possible outcome. Despite spending decades as a paragon of ethics in the unethical world of college football, Paterno’s sins of omission were inexcusable.

Longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky apparently had spent decades molesting children, and for anybody who possessed information about such acts, extremism is no vice. Paterno, the university president, the AD, the vice president . . . any one of them could have taken steps to halt the abuse. Any one of them could have, should have, done something more.

These are children we’re talking about. And the type of abuse they allegedly suffered leaves life-long scars.

So while the past few days have focused on what Paterno knew and when he knew it, the fact is that this shouldn’t be about Joe Paterno; it should be about the victims.

The list of accusations against Sandusky are utterly sickening, and I can’t fathom what it’s like to be a parent of somebody who had contact with him over the years.

Just imagine how many kids went through Sandusky’s youth programs over the decades and later had problems growing up. Just imagine how many had their lives altered, with their parents probably wondering what went wrong and where it went wrong.

And now, years later, those parents hear revelations about the most heinous type of predator, and suddenly the light bulb goes off.

It’s horrific. And it doesn’t stop with the parents of the known victims.

Whether or not your child was abused, you would wonder. You would always wonder.

You would think about all that we do as parents to protect our children, to care for them, to nurture them, knowing that the world is a dangerous place and the best you can do is to help them navigate that danger. And then, years later, you learn that one of those places you thought was safe might have been the scariest of them all.

It’s a tragedy. And it doesn’t go away. Not for the victims, not for their families, not for Penn State.

Paterno, through decades in the public eye, has been a good and decent man. A 1997 expansion of the Penn State library is named Paterno Library. A day-care center on the Nike campus is named the Joe Paterno Center.

The sordid, salacious events of the past week don’t change that, but they obviously taint what would have been a sterling legacy. Child abuse is impossible to rationalize, impossible to explain away.

Yet I think a lot of good and decent people would believe that telling their boss about such allegations against a former co-worker would be adequate. It wouldn’t make it right to not follow up on the accusations, but it’s understandable how that follow up could be missed.

All of which has dragged a football coach who was a national icon into an unwitting spotlight. Yet while the saga of Joe Paterno has been compelling and riveting and newsworthy, it’s really only a secondary part of the tragedy.

Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To “Like” him on Facebook, search for “Greg Jayne - The Columbian”