The Paterno family should have quit at: "With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.''
Joe Paterno issued that statement five days after his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted on 40 charges of sexually abusing children. He preyed on many of those children at the Penn State athletic facilities where Paterno held sway.
At first, Paterno's comment about failing to intervene seemed inadequate. Time and events have transformed it, if not into a towering achievement in humility and regret, then a tourniquet for condemnation that should have been allowed to do its job. Everything that followed, in the remaining two and a half months of Paterno's life and then the subsequent year, through riots after his firing and 600-plus pages of investigation and counter-investigation, dragged his reputation deeper into the murk.
His family's 238-page commissioned reply to last summer's damning Freeh Report, accusing Paterno of a cover-up, did nothing but pick at scabs. It certainly didn't help Sandusky's victims, pulling their abuse back onto the national stage in the interest of restoring a football legacy.
The Paterno family's appearance on Katie Couric's show Monday, along with two former Penn State players, offered character references in place of information that could thoroughly exonerate the late coach. The show amounted to a warped grief counseling session with fabulous makeup and lighting.
Couric's guests loved Paterno dearly. Their sense of loss has been compounded by the dismantling of his legacy. Scrutinizing their comments seems almost heartless. But then Sandusky's victims come to mind, and the recollections of his widow, Sue, demand a thorough review.
To support her assertion that her husband knew nothing of Sandusky's crimes, she told Couric that her kids would play in pools with the assistant coach during road trips with the football team. "Do you think we'd let our kids play with someone who might be a pedophile?" Sue Paterno asked. "Obviously, we were all totally unaware."
But accusations about her husband's willful ignorance do not stretch back to the 1980s, the last time any of the five Paterno offspring – now all over 40 – could have been considered kids. The first established hint of Sandusky's assaults came in 1998, when a boy told his mother that he had been forced to shower with the assistant coach. The mother went to the police, but the investigation never yielded charges in part because the boy had been too shocked to offer reliable testimony.
The Freeh Report contends, without absolutely proving, based on a handful of emails, that Paterno knew about the 1998 incident and ignored it as a precedent that lent credibility and urgency to accusations made three years later by Mike McQueary. The young assistant coach went to Paterno's house in 2001 to tell him that he had seen Sandusky in the Penn State locker-room showers with a young boy, doing something of a sexual nature.
What exactly McQueary reported to Paterno in 2001, or whether Paterno grasped the gravity of it, remains in dispute. So does what Paterno knew in 1998. But none of that information could have affected how the Paternos viewed Sandusky's interactions with their children when they were actually children.
The Paterno family has stressed that the report is intended primarily to help prevent future abuse, and Jay Paterno told Couric's audience that the coach's survivors planned to become involved with suitable foundations. But if that were the primary goal, why not plunge right into the philanthropy instead of wasting cash to engage a D.C. lawyer and expensive consultants in a spitting match with Louis Freeh, a former director of the FBI?
The title of the report, "Critique of the Freeh Report: The Rush to Injustice Regarding Joe Paterno,'' gives away its priorities. It also suggests the one viable goal -- overturning the tangible effects of Freeh's work. His report prodded the NCAA to fillet Penn State football less than two weeks later, cutting scholarships, banning bowl appearances, vacating 111 of Paterno's wins and demanding $60 million in fines.
If the governor of Pennsylvania can proceed with his lawsuit against the NCAA, the "Rush to Injustice'' might provide supporting material. But the lawsuit is a Hail Mary pass, and the Paterno report won't add much loft.
Its entire premise is a bad misdirection play. The Freeh Report overreached in some of its conclusions, but many people had already reached their own after hearing details of Paterno's grand-jury testimony.
He said of the shower-room activity described by an "upset'' McQueary: "It was of a sexual nature'' and "some kind of inappropriate action was being taken by Jerry Sandusky with a youngster.'' He said he decided to report the information to his boss, athletic director Tim Curley, but delayed for the most prosaic of reasons. …
"I ordinarily would have called people right away, but it was a Saturday morning and I didn't want to interfere with their weekends," Paterno testified.
The NCAA might have needed the Freeh Report to justify its actions. Penn State might have needed it as impetus to dismantle Paterno's statue. To stop seeing Paterno as the beatified JoePa, one needed only to know that he valued his boss' leisure time above reporting a possible child rape. Was this negligence, willful or mindless, or was it a calculated cover-up?
Whatever it all meant, Paterno couldn't hope to be seen the same way again, not even by his most devoted fans. They'll have to fight for him from now on, and they know it.
Unlike his athletic director and school president, he convinced the grand jury that he had told the truth and did not end up charged with perjury. His reply about weekends sounded callous, but also too callous to be a lie. He had that going for him. He seemed more clueless than conspiratorial.
His "wish I had done more'' statement seemed like a halting start toward forgiveness. But he retreated from the straightforward humility of it too often over the last weeks of his life. On the same day, he vowed to retire at the end of the year and said condescendingly: "At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address.'' He was fired later that night.
He evasively told the Washington Post that McQueary's description might not have made sense to him because "I never heard of, of, rape and a man." According to the biography "Paterno'' by Joe Posnanski, he told his son Jay: "My name. I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it's gone."
End-stage stage cancer might have explained away these remarks. But his loved ones have now continued with a similar theme, so intent on image repair that they can't see outside their bubble. They can't imagine how their actions might affect abuse victims, who so seldom speak up for themselves.
Joe Paterno spoke for himself before he died. He said the right thing, the only thing he could say that would allow for healing: He should have done more years earlier. Once it became too late for that, he and his family needed to say as little as possible.