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Joe Paterno was a liar; there's no doubt about that now. He was also a cover-up artist. If the Freeh Report is correct in its summary of the Penn State child-molestation scandal, the public Paterno of the last few years was a work of fiction. In his place is a hubristic, indictable hypocrite.
In the last interview before his death, Paterno insisted as strenuously as a dying man could that he had absolutely no knowledge of a 1998 police inquiry into the accusations against his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. This has always been the critical point in assessing whether Paterno and other Penn State leaders enabled Sandusky's crimes.
If Paterno knew about '98, then he wasn't some aging granddad who was deceived, but a canny and unfeeling power broker who put protecting his reputation ahead of protecting children.
If he knew about '98, then he understood the import of graduate assistant Mike McQueary's distraught account in 2001 that he witnessed Sandusky assaulting a boy in the Penn State showers.
If he knew about '98, then he also perjured himself before a grand jury.
Paterno didn't always give lucid answers in his final interview conducted with the Washington Post three days before his death, but on this point he was categorical and clear as a bell. He pled total, lying ignorance of the '98 investigation into a local mother's claim Sandusky had groped her son in the shower at the football building. How could Paterno have no knowledge of this, I asked him?
"Nobody knew," he said.
Never heard a rumor?
"I never heard a thing," he said.
He heard everything.
Paterno's account is flatly contradicted in damning detail by ex FBI-director Louis Freeh's report. In a news conference on Thursday, Freeh charged that Paterno, along with athletic director Tim Curley, university president Graham Spanier and vice president Gary Schultz, engaged in "an active agreement of concealment."
Paterno was not only aware of the '98 investigation, but followed it "closely," according to Freeh. There is only one aspect in which the report does not totally destroy Paterno's pretension of honesty. It finds no connection between the '98 investigation and Sandusky's resignation from Paterno's staff in '99. It also suggests that Paterno genuinely believed the police had found no evidence of a crime.
Paterno can be forgiven for his initial denial, for refusing to believe his colleague was a child molester in 1998. What's not forgivable is his sustained determination to lie from 2001 onward.
In his final interview, he played the faux-naif who insisted he had "never heard of rape and a man." Who hadn't followed up on McQueary's report out of squeamishness. Who was wary of interfering in university "procedure." Who insisted it was unfair to put Penn State on trial along with a pedophile, and that this was not "a football scandal."
In fact, in 2001 Paterno had every reason to suspect Sandusky was a serial defiler of children. In fact, he was not reluctant to interfere in university procedure; he helped dictate it. In fact, this was a football scandal. The crimes were committed by a former assistant football coach in the football building. Ten boys, and 45 criminal counts, at least five of them molested on the Penn State campus after 1998 when Paterno committed the awful misjudgment of continuing to allow Sandusky to bring boys to his locker room.
We can't unrape and unmolest those boys. That should have been an unrelenting source of rage and grief to Paterno. Yet in perhaps the most damaging observation of all, the Freeh report accuses Paterno and his colleagues of "a striking lack of empathy" for the victims.
Everything else about Paterno must now be questioned; other details about him begin to nag. You now wonder if his self-defense was all an exercise in sealing off watertight compartments, leaving colleagues on the outside to drown. You wonder if he performed a very neat trick in disguising himself as a modest and benevolent man. The subtle but constant emphasis on his Ivy League education, the insistence that Penn State football had higher standards, now looks more like rampant elitism. The humble ranch home near campus now looks more like a pose, given that he kept a $3.5 million beachfront home in Avalon, N.J.
Undeniably, for many years Paterno did virtuous work at Penn State. His combined winning records and graduation rates were indeed much higher than his peers. It's a relevant part of the Penn State affair and worth stating, because it contributed to the institutional response.
He was the self-appointed arbiter of character and justice in State College. He had decided Sandusky was "a good man" in 1998, and he simply found it too hard to admit he gave a child molester the office nearest to his. He was more interested in protecting a cardboard cutout legacy than the flesh and blood of young men.
The only explanation I can find for this "striking lack of empathy" is self-absorption. In asking how a paragon of virtue could have behaved like such a thoroughly bad guy, the only available answer is that Paterno fell prey to the single most corrosive sin in sports: the belief that winning on the field makes you better and more important than other people.