(The Root) — As it turns out, former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno wasn't a saint after all, which shouldn't come as a surprise because no one is. Yet we repeatedly make the same mistake, elevating coaches, civil rights leaders and clergy to God-like status, though they're as flawed as anyone else. Sometimes more so.
The great and mighty "Joe-Pa," who became the Nittany Lions coach when Lyndon B. Johnson occupied the White House, acquired so much sovereignty as he built a pristine image, his so-called superiors were more like peers, if not underlings. Thursday, in a 267-page report on Penn State's sex-abuse scandal, former FBI director Louis Freeh outlined how the school's former president and two other former senior officials were followers more than leaders when it came to the head coach.
Paterno was more concerned about his legacy than about the victims of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who last month was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse. If Paterno was so inclined, former President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz would have ensured that the proper authorities investigated claims that Sandusky had raped a child in the football team's locker room in 2001.
But Paterno, who died in January not long after the scandal broke, wasn't interested in finding out the truth and possibly putting his program in a negative light. Penn State had a reputation as one of the nation's cleanest football powerhouses under Paterno's 46-year tenure. If he didn't want anything to interfere with that record, neither did the other officials.
"Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State," Freeh said Thursday during a news conference.
Curley and Schultz are awaiting trial on perjury charges (they pleaded not guilty) for allegedly lying to a grand jury and failing to report suspected child abuse. Spanier hasn't been charged as of yet, but the Freeh report should make that a foregone conclusion. Paterno very well might face charges if he were alive. But his reputation continued its descent Thursday while a debate raged on the fate of his statue, which stands outside the stadium.
After the report was released, Nike removed Paterno's name from the child-development center on the company's campus in Beaverton, Ore. After Paterno was fired in November, his nomination for a Presidential Medal of Freedom was rescinded, his name was taken off the Big Ten championship trophy and a national award named in his honor was discontinued.
It's a shocking turn for unarguably the most powerful man on Penn State's campus and one of sports' biggest powerbrokers. Folks on campus dared not cross him or his program, as evidenced by interviews in the Freeh report. It describes an incident in 2000, when a janitor witnessed Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy in the showers.
The janitor told his co-workers but didn't tell anyone in authority because it "would have been like going against the president of the United States," according to the report. "Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone … Football runs this university."
Football and basketball are outsized at many universities, which often results in longtime coaches gaining inordinate power and prestige. There's no getting around the affection that students and fans can develop for famed coaches.
But universities should do a better job teaching everyone to keep intercollegiate sports in perspective. And remember that coaches are human, too, with flaws and weaknesses like everyone else.