by Cathy Sheffler, Proud Freehdom Fighter
Over the past year, it has become glaringly clear to me how easy it is for misinformed public opinion to condemn someone based on rumor, pass sentence, and close the case before the truth has had time to get out of bed in the morning – leaving the life and legacy of a good person in tatters, maybe forever. The ability of the media and public officials to irrationally and irresponsibly tar and feather any of us in the public square without proof and without liability is stunning.
The end of August, 2012, is drawing near. The football season starts this weekend. Joe Paterno will not be coaching Penn State football. To this date, not one piece of evidence has been revealed that proves that Joe Paterno did anything wrong related to Jerry Sandusky’s crimes.
- The Grand Jury did not see reason to indict Joe Paterno.
- The Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has not presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
- Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner, Frank Noonan, has not presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
- The Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, has not presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
- The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees has not presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
- Neither Sally Jenkins nor Sara Ganim, nor any other so-called journalist, has presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
- Louis Freeh has not presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
- The NCAA has not presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
- The Big Ten has not presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
- NO ONE has presented credible proof that Paterno did anything wrong.
And yet, a recent surveyof public opinion demonstrated that people are disappointingly ignorant of the facts in this situation and think that Joe Paterno not only did something wrong but was the architect of Penn State doing something wrong. Most barely know who Jerry Sandusky is and know nothing about The Second Mile, the charity that Sandusky founded and used to procure his victims. But they are sure that Paterno is guilty.
I am not a Penn State graduate. I went to a dinky little school that almost no one ever heard of until Jim Valvano took a coaching job at North Carolina State University leaving behind confused basketball players who, it turned out, had been allowed to “mow lawns” and “wash cars” for cash and get special tutoring instead of going to classes. The players came forward then to ask if their special treatment would continue. The NCAA wasn’t pleased. The school suffered but Valvano moved on and, 30+ years later, once again, almost no one has ever heard of the school and many still revere Valvano. No, I am not a Penn State graduate, but I am married to a Penn State alumnus and I have a son whom I’ve always thought would likely be a Penn Stater one day. Now I wonder if there will still be a Penn State when the time comes for him to go to college.
Before last November, I’d never heard of Jerry Sandusky, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, or Graham Spanier. I’d heard of Joe Paterno, of course. I even attended a game once. We got up with the dawn, drove in, arrived too early, and cooked hot dogs on a little grill my mother-in-law packed for our “tailgate party” at an obscene 9:30 in the morning. We wandered around to see the “into it” tailgaters and filed into Beaver Stadium far too early. It was interesting. It was fun, even, after the sun moved enough that we were no longer frying like eggs on the metal bleachers. I saw the mascot, heard the band, and watched the students, alumni, and other fans have a great time. Yes, I had fun too. I even saved my Penn State soda cup. We have other Penn State stuff too – a JoePa bobblehead (it looks more like Cary Grant with dark glasses than Joe Paterno), the Penn State gnome, books and CDs, a cement Nittany Lion that graces our garden wall…. even a Penn State fly swatter. But until last November, what I knew about Penn State and its people, other than my husband and his friends, fit on a Post-it note. No, I was not a Penn Stater.
But I was and am an American. I remember seeing TV clips of rioting Iranians burning a dummy and chanting “Death to Carter.” Why him? He was the best-known American of the time, our leader, an American whose name they knew, so “death to” him. At that time in my life, I was a casual citizen, complacent in our freedoms and liberties. That ended on 9/11 and, like many others, I was fundamentally changed that day. I realized that I needed to get serious about being an American. The America that we have is fragile and we need to protect it. It’s unique, and powerful, and inspiring, but it’s also breakable. We have to work and fight to keep it strong, resist those who hate us, our freedoms, what we stand for, and our way of life. People who might someday burn a dummy and chant “Death to Cathy,” simply because they know my name.
A basic pillar of our American way of life, enshrined in our Bill of Rights, is that a citizen is entitled to due process. What is due process? It’s the right of an accused person to face accusers and to be heard fairly and impartially. Jerry Sandusky has had his due process. He will likely die in jail for his crimes. In January, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz are scheduled to receive due process. After many months of silence, Graham Spanier has spoken up to address his accusers. Will he be formally accused? I don’t know. But one person who has not and will not get the chance to face his accusers and be heard is Joe Paterno.
I gather that there have always been those who hated Joe Paterno, those who loved and respected him, and those who – like me – barely knew he existed and had no opinion one way or another. Then, last November, I had another 9/11 moment. No, I am not comparing the two events. I am comparing how the two events affected me. I started with a vague sense that this is wrong. This is wrong. THIS is wrong. THIS IS wrong. THIS IS WRONG! I joined a Facebook group started by Penn State graduates and supporters organizing to change the Board of Trustees who fired Paterno without due process. (I knew so little, I thought it should be a Board of Directors!) I mostly listened in the beginning while following the story closely. I did my own careful and deliberate research, following the facts in the case and, with my journalism degree firmly in hand, working to separate the fact from the hysteria. The who, what, when, where, why, and how. What were the laws? What were the procedures? What was the history? What I saw amazed and frightened me.
I have now done months of reading and digging and listening to people who knew Paterno as a person, a father figure, a colleague, a competitor. No question, he was multi-dimensional and imperfect, much like my own father who was born the year before him. He was an old world gentleman who believed in cleaning up for company and showing respect. He could be irascible, impatient, gruff, and difficult. He could also be sensitive, thoughtful, insightful, and witty. He was a deeply principled man, someone who didn’t want anything he hadn’t worked for and didn’t see himself as better than anyone else. He was devoted to his profession precisely because it allowed him to do something fun (football) while feeding his deeper motivation – to mold young minds and influence them to make the most of their lives and their opportunities. He knew that, for most of them, football was only for a few years. He influenced them to use those years to prepare for the rest of their lives as fine citizens giving service to the world. Somewhere along the line, some people decided to canonize him and build a statue to him. My understanding is that he neither agreed with nor liked either one. He just wanted to continue being Educator, Coach, Humanitarian.
I learned a long time ago that if you have enough character to be admired, other forces will reflexively see the opposite and seek to tear you down. And so, with no proof whatsoever and with pre-conceived hatred, schadenfreude, or as a result of willful misinformation, Joe Paterno has been figuratively burned in effigy by thousands of people across America. This is in America. The land of freedom, of opportunity, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The land, sadly, that still harbors petty Joe McCarthys and tolerates witch hunts. Salem is not just history.
When Jerry Sandusky was arrested, ESPN and other media began their relentless verbal assault on Penn State and Paterno. In response, on 9 November 2011, the Penn State Board of Trustees shamefully gave in to that pressure and fired Paterno publicly after 61 years of service without giving him a chance to be heard. Rather than quieting the media circus, they fed it. Had the Board said something like “We are shocked and saddened by these accusations and the possibility that children were victimized. We are confident that, over time, the truth of these charges and Penn State’s role in them will be known. That is the appropriate time for us to act,” the media may have looked elsewhere – perhaps at the man actually accused of child abuse – instead of continuing to attack Paterno and Penn State. By their actions, the Board of Trustees took ownership and transformed the Jerry Sandusky scandal into a Penn State scandal. They utterly failed to quiet the noise; the drumbeat only got louder.
Horrified by the accusations against Sandusky, Paterno made an oft-misquoted statement that included “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Aha! He admits he should have done more! Really? No! Heck, I wish I had done more and I had nothing to do with the situation! I wish everyone had done more. What Jerry Sandusky did to those boys should never have happened and we all need to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen to another child. I think there is something wrong with anyone who was even remotely associated with Sandusky who hasn’t spent a good deal of time wondering if there was something they missed, some signal they should have picked up on, some way they could have done more. No one else has said it; Paterno said it. Was that an admission of guilt? No!
Shortly thereafter, Joe Paterno’s family announced that he was being treated for lung cancer. Media wouldn’t leave him alone. One radio personality announced that he hoped Paterno would die soon and hosted a “Celebration Of Paterno’s Cancer” segment on his radio show. It was like the burning dummy – “Death to Paterno!” In January, 2012, they got their wish. Death came for Paterno. Media didn’t even have the decency to stay away while the Penn State and Paterno families grieved. They showed up to claim their TV ratings, piously observing the formal and informal outpouring of love and respect from former players, colleagues, and family members while whispering about the scandal that ended his career. Before long, they were back to open condemnation.
Why “Death to Paterno”? The list of people and organizations who failed those boys is long, but the demonization is focused on Paterno. Why? Because he was the best known Penn Stater of his time, someone whose name they knew and whose name they could use to make headlines. A story about the Sandusky scandal isn’t complete without Paterno’s name. After hearing a radio talker from Northeastern PA spend more than a week spreading untruths on his radio show informed only by the Freeh fiasco, I politely asked him to take the time to read some opposing opinions that I sent to him. His answer? “Case closed.” Truth doesn’t matter. Death to Truth!
Paterno told his last biographer that he wanted the truth to come out. After completing that book, I say the same as I did before – he was multi-dimensional. He wasn’t a god. He never wanted to be a god. But even if you don’t care about Paterno, you must care about truth or we are all in danger of suffering his fate. Think. Learn. Don’t believe all that you read or hear. Question what doesn’t make sense. Look for proof. Form your own opinions based on the truth.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve recently heard the Edmund Burke quote “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” That’s also true of the evil that is the unfounded destruction of good men’s (and women’s) reputations. Don’t stand by and do nothing when the life and reputation of a good and decent man can be destroyed with no proof. We cannot accept “Death to Truth.”