Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal Really About Football?

Legendary football coach Joe Paterno was fired on Wednesday. Critics said he should have done more to address charges of child sex abuse that came to his attention. Penn State students staged violent protests after the announcement. Host Michel Martin speaks with USA Today Sports Columnist Christine Brennan and NPR Sports Correspondent Mike Pesca about the abuse case, firing, and 84-year-old Paterno's legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: More college students want to be the boss. They are creating their own companies, sometimes while they're still students. We'll ask why in just a few minutes.

But first, Penn State is cleaning up after a night of student protests in the wake of the firing of Joe Paterno. He is the winningest coach in major college football history but yesterday, university officials fired him over his role in a sexual abuse scandal. Here's university trustee John Surma.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JOHN SURMA: Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach, effective immediately. These decisions were made after careful deliberations and in the best interests of the university as a whole.

MARTIN: The Board of Trustees also fired university president Graham Spanier yesterday. All of this, of course, after a former assistant coach at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted on charges of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period, and after a grand jury report revealed that Paterno was told about at least one of the alleged incidents from an alleged eyewitness, but did not alert police.

We wanted to talk more about this fast-moving story with two close observers of the sports scene. So we have called upon Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports journalist, and NPR's Mike Pesca. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Hi, Michel.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Sure.

MARTIN: Now, Christine, you've written some blistering columns about this in recent days, calling on Penn State to fire Paterno immediately - and that was when he had said that he would finish out the season, but would retire at the end of it. And you said that that was not good enough, and he had to go now. Why do you feel so strongly about it?

BRENNAN: Michel, I think it's quite simple - that the squeaky clean image at Penn State is tarnished, you know, forever. And why? I think in large part because of Paterno's inaction when he was told the news back in 2002. And this is, you know, this is graph - it's terrible - but that a 10-year-old boy - a man - one of his assistant coaches witnessed - graduate assistant - witnessed a 10-year-old boy being raped by the former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, in the showers of the Penn State football facility.

Paterno did what was legally - he was legally obligated to do, which is tell his supervisor - his superior, Tim Curley, the athletic director, and did nothing more. He never called the police. We don't know if he ever thought about it again. Sandusky then had the run of Penn State even though he was no longer the assistant coach. Sandusky was there even as recently as about a week, a week and a half ago.

And to me, as someone - Joe Paterno has been held up for so long as a leader of young people, an educator - that's what he calls himself. The Paterno Library at Penn State, named after him. The fact that he didn't do more - I think it's a privilege, not a right, to be the head coach of a wonderful university like Penn State. And he gave up that privilege by not helping out that boy and by potentially causing other boys, as the attorney general of Pennsylvania said, to be abused and raped because of his inaction.

MARTIN: Mike, yesterday - as we discussed - the Board of Trustees ultimately decided that Joe Paterno had to go now. And then you said that - this reaction by some of the students, who took to the streets; they flipped over a news van and smashed some windows. And you have to assume that that suggests that they still have a sense of, I don't know, affection for Mr. Paterno. I'm not asking you to sort of get into the minds of the students who engaged in this conduct, but it is puzzling to other people outside of the university that it took so long.

So I'm just interested in whether your reporting indicates - what was the triggering factor for the university trustees in deciding that now was the time, that he had to go now, that he couldn't coach the rest of the season?

PESCA: Well, I can offer this as an explanation as to the mindset of Penn State, which is that Joe Paterno was more - and it's quite common in big college campuses with successful football teams - that the coach is either beloved or very powerful, and sometimes an icon. Joe Paterno went even beyond that, way beyond that, not only because of his longevity, not only because of his achievement but because of his mien, because of his style; him saying that Penn State is engaged in a grand experiment, which he defined as attempting to graduate all of his college football students - college students who played football. And he was really quite successful at that. So people at Penn State would chant: We are Penn State. And it was so important to them that Joe Paterno was the coach of the football team.

Now, I don't - again, there were 20-year-olds involved in perhaps some alcohol-fueled actions. They lashed out against the media. They tipped over a satellite truck. Perhaps the minority of the people who were out demonstrating supported such an action, although video shows everyone standing up and cheering. That's not unusual in a riot.

So we don't know exactly, or we can't necessarily excuse it. But my take on this was that it went so much at the heart of their identity. And perhaps because they're so youthful, they didn't have enough perspective to think about all the things that Christine was just talking about. And the last thing I would say about the riots and trying to understand them, I remember after Osama bin Laden was killed and many university students went out into the streets. And someone explained it as, he was our bogeyman; he was our Voldemort - the character from "Harry Potter."

And in this case, I just saw it as an emotional connection; that JoePa was like the grandpa, was like this beloved member of the family, and that's why they were lashing out emotionally - that a family member had an injustice visited upon him, in their minds perhaps.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with NPR's Mike Pesca - that's who was speaking just now - and also, USA Today's Christine Brennan. We're talking about the firing of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno because of his actions - or inactions in connection with the child sex abuse scandal involving his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky.

Christine, can I ask you about this whole question of why - not just Mr. Paterno, but other university officials behaved as they did. The suggestion is now being made that - just following up on Mike's point - that it's just that college football and the whole specter of college football is just too important on a campus like Penn State, and that too many people were unwilling to risk the revenue stream and all of the, you know, image issues attached to college football even when it became - even where there was strong evidence that very young children were being abused in a very profound, you know, and harmful way.

Now, you've covered a number of scandals in big-time college sports - nothing like this, I mean - involving, you know, recruiting scandals and things of that sort. What do you make of that argument? Do you credit that?

BRENNAN: You have a great point. You're making a great point, Michel. And I think it is partially that. I think it is the revenue, the money, that the millions - the tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars. And if anyone has been paying attention to college football this fall, you know about the conference realignment; the scandals at Miami, at Ohio State, at USC; other hints of scandals other places. And so, it's - you know, we wonder how big it is, and how untouchable it is, and is it - has it run amok?

As you said, there's nothing like this. And let's hope this is the one and only of this kind of awful, disgusting, gut-wrenching scandals. It just makes you sick. And if people haven't read that grand jury report, 23 pages, you need to read it to understand how bad this was at Penn State. Alleged, of course, at this point.

But I think there's more to it. It's a corollary to what you brought up about football as king on campuses - and might mention there with JoePa - Paterno - being so beloved. The hierarchy within a football program is such that I think, even though they wouldn't say this to us, I think they believe they're better than everyone, and above it all. And I say that in the best sense, that they - that it's one for all, all for one. They gather in July or August. They start practices. They have a whole season, and they come up for air in January. And I'm not excusing it, but I'm trying to explain it.

And I think that when you've got a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, who's 28 years old - so he's not 22 - and he sees this, why he didn't run over, in this 2002 incident, and grab Jerry Sandusky away from the boy, and call the police. That's what you'd hope everyone would do.

Instead, I think McQueary probably thought he was doing a lot by calling his dad, and then going to Joe Paterno's house the next day - which would be a remarkable thing for a graduate assistant to do - and tell Joe Paterno what he saw about another legend at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky. And that's the problem - that they probably thought they were doing enough when, of course, the real world tells us they weren't doing enough at all.

MARTIN: And Mike, I was going to ask you to pick up on that point, too. Is this really about football? Is this story really about football? Or is it about other, you know, relationships? I mean, there are other - I just, you know, saw a column, you know, earlier this morning, on the way in, that made the analogy to the sex-abuse scandals, child sex-abuse scandals, that we've seen in the Catholic Church, where people who have different kind of - where there's also an authority hierarchy that people, for whatever reason, feel that they can't go outside of. So what is your take on this, Mike? And I recognize I'm asking you to render an opinion.

PESCA: Right.

MARTIN: Is this really about football?

PESCA: Well, maybe it is about football in the sense that - let's think about that analogy to the Catholic Church. The reason that so many priests were allowed to do this - and that it was countenanced - was that we were dealing with the overall structure of a system that was, you know, in the service of God, that was holy, that was beyond reproach. And so people would argue, even if one or two priests did something bad, we're talking about the church here. We're talking about the word of God.

That a similar mindset would infect college football is telling, to think that this - no one said, well, look, this will damage the program, but of course we have to put a stop to it. But that perhaps people thought, you know, the important thing is that it doesn't stop the very important progress of the Penn State football team or individual careers. I mean, that's a possible interpretation of what happened.

And if we say, I think it's decent enough to say, we don't know what we would have done in this situation. And also, you know, we assume that everyone is trained to react in the correct way when they encounter a report of pedophilia. But the experts will tell you they're not. You know, this is why so much abuse goes on, because people don't immediately react.

But I think of what - Frank Noonan, who is a 30-year veteran of the FBI, and who is now with the Pennsylvania State Police. And he said in his entire experience, he has never encountered another example where someone actually saw a graphic rape taking place, and no action was taken. There are numerous examples of - well, it was excused as horseplay; well, we didn't know what to think about it. But something so graphic, and no action was taken. And in fact, the action that was taken - it is so inconceivable, which is that Jerry Sandusky was told not to bring kids to the Penn State campus.

MARTIN: A fact, of course, which is why the mothers of two of the victims - alleged victims who have been interviewed are outraged. Of course, there is going to be more to this story, I believe, in the future, and we do hope we can turn to both of you again.

Mike Pesca is an NPR correspondent who covers sports. Christine Brennan writes about issues in national and international sports for USA Today. We reached both of them by phone. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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