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Mellinger: Paterno corrupted by craziness, power of sports

Fri., July 13, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jerry Sandusky cloaked himself in a charity purported to help disadvantaged boys but instead used the cover to rape and sodomize them over a span measured in decades. He is evil. He is sick. He is a criminal.

What was Joe Paterno’s excuse?

This changes everything. A Penn State-sponsored lawyer’s report comes back as damning as anyone could’ve imagined, finding the most influential man on campus actively participated in a cover-up by “repeatedly concealing critical facts” that goes directly against his testimony – under oath – to a grand jury last year.

Because he coached with Paterno at Penn State, Sandusky was almost certainly a free man longer than he would’ve been had he worked at a local insurance shop.

Put another way: Long after Sandusky’s sickness should’ve been obvious, he was almost certainly allowed to rape more boys while Paterno kept the secret. Before he died in January, Paterno said he wished he’d done more. Turns out he did more than he let on.

Turns out he protected someone he knew to be a suspected child molester, even after more allegations came, letting the victims grow in number and suffer on their own.

This is the ugly side of sports’ power.

Nothing can be the same now. Most immediately, nothing in or around Penn State. Nike will take Paterno’s name off a child-care center. Paterno’s statue in front of the football stadium must come down. His legacy is already being rewritten. The Grand Experiment has a whole new meaning now. What used to be beyond reproach turned out to be a facade.

Paterno constructed a legendary career. He built people up, gave money for a library and did a lot of genuine good for his players and the community around him. Those things aren’t gone now, but they are forever overwhelmed by a Penn State review that accuses him of enabling crimes against some of society’s most vulnerable victims.

There is no conceivable punishment too harsh for what happened, over and over and over again, day after day turning into decade after decade. Paterno died in January, but his living conspirators in the cover-up – former president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz – should be prosecuted without mercy. The NCAA should seriously consider whether Penn State should be allowed to play football for a while.

And the rest of us need to ask ourselves hard questions. Uncomfortable questions.

Sports make us crazy. They make us unreasonable. They make us overlook fundamental flaws and they make us cheer bad people. They motivate us to excuse the inexcusable – as long as it’s in the right uniform.

Viewed from a sterile distance, these behaviors are obviously stupid and counterproductive. But, then, sports are never viewed from a sterile distance, are they?

Nothing amplifies our strengths and shines light on our weaknesses like sports. Nothing makes us simultaneously better and worse like sports. And in our country, no sport moves us like football. This is a wonderful thing most times. Gives us something to look forward to, something to talk about, an excuse to hang out with friends or call Dad.

But to the extent that power builds armor against suspicion of misdeed s, sports can be the worst of us. Paterno apparently covered up horrible crimes because he wanted to protect his program, his personal legacy, his friendships. Powerful people helped because they wanted to protect themselves and the big business of college football.

The evil conspiracy worked, too, long enough to delay the nastiest charges until the week after Paterno passed Eddie Robinson for most victories as a major-college football coach .

Because of sports, Sandusky was left free too long. Because of sports, grown men protected a child molester instead of children. Because of sports, many otherwise reasonable Penn State fans are still defending the indefensible.

This is the takeaway.

This is the lesson.

State College is nearly a thousand miles from Kansas City, and it’s easy to let the distance serve as a buffer. That’s a dangerous and delusional trap.

Sandusky’s sickness found an enabling environment – not because enough people at Penn State think child molestation is OK, but because enough people at Penn State lost perspective.

Anyone with a soul feels sadness for all victims of sexual predators, including Sandusky’s. Anyone with a brain can see that in this case, the predator didn’t act alone. He was aided in part by a man the world considered a hero.

We’d be gutless not to consider the role of sports in all of this. We’d be weak not to change our thought patterns.

The power of sports allowed Paterno to achieve historic successes and help thousands of people.

It also drove him to cover up monstrous crimes and ruin what he’d built.

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