Joe Paterno: A scapegoat?

AP Penn State head coach Joe Paterno talks with reporters after recording his 409th career win 10-7 over Illinois in … Continued


Penn State head coach Joe Paterno talks with reporters after recording his 409th career win 10-7 over Illinois in an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011.

Is Joe Paterno becoming a scapegoat? No, I don’t mean is he being unfairly blamed for things he did, or for things he failed to do which he should have. In light of the Freeh investigation, it seems painfully clear that that the answer to that question is no. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t also being used as a scapegoat.

There is no question that the former football coach, former university president Graham Spanier and others in positions of authority failed at the most fundamental levels in the case of Jerry Sandusky and his ongoing abuse of minors. They failed as leaders, as educators and even as human beings.

In light of the newly released information contained in Freeh’s report regarding the actions and equally dangerous inaction on the part of these authority figures, there should also be new levels of accountability for both what they did and for what they failed to do. But that is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that Paterno especially, and to some extent college football as a whole, are being used as scapegoats – individual entities upon which an entire community can park its sins and have them carried away into the desert, giving the community a fresh start, as the Hebrew Bible describes in chapter 16 of Leviticus. And who wouldn’t want to find some single entity upon which we could place the blame, send it away and be free of all responsibility ourselves?


After an eight-month inquiry, former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s firm produced a 267-page report that concluded that Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno and other top Penn State officials hushed up child sex abuse allegation against Jerry Sandusky more than a decade ago for fear of bad publicity, allowing Sandusky to prey on other youngsters.

Would that it were so simple – either in the Bible or in life, including life at Penn State. But the ritual of the scapegoat does not work quite as simply as all that, and it actually demands that all those who wish to see their sins carried away, get their own affairs in order first.

In the days of the Bible, that meant that before the high priest could send the animal off into the desert, carrying the community’s sins with it, the community, its institutions and its leaders all had to seek atonement for their past bad acts – yes, all of them, not just the leaders or a particular institution. The same should be true in dealing with Penn State.

Before laying all the blame at the feet of the coach, the school, the sport or any other single person, place or institution, we need to ask about our own place in this scandal or at the very least how likely we would have been to act differently were we to find ourselves in a similar position.

Don’t we all tend to protect who and what we love, sometimes doing both to the detriment of all involved? Don’t we all find ourselves making excuses and failing to see what is right in front of our eyes when it is too painful to do otherwise? I am not excusing it, but simply making sure that before we park all of the blame elsewhere, we see the very same impulses and propensities in ourselves.

View Photo Gallery: Freeh report on Penn State’s handling of Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse reveals “total disregard” for victims.

Without that self-inventory, the scapegoating ritual doesn’t “work” — at least not the biblical version which is about something far richer and more sophisticated than finding a whipping boy (whipping goat?) whose disappearance relieves us of all anxiety and responsibility.

If we really care about what happened at Penn State, and even more importantly, care about making such things less common, then like the ancient ritual, we need to seize this moment to turn inward as much as outward. To be sure, the more authority and power one has, the greater their responsibility and accountability ought to be.

In the case of Coach Paterno, that means that his legacy must include these dark moments in his career, and for those who were in authority and are still living, their fate should be a matter for the legal system. But all that said, keeping kids safer in the future depends less upon a few bad actors in the past than it does on many good actors in the present.

The question is less about how bad Paterno was, and more about what we can learn from these events, and what responsibilities we are willing to assume in order to keep kids safer. When we have answered those questions, and only then, will any goat, living or dead, be able to carry our problems away.

View Photo Gallery: Joe Paterno opens up about the sex-abuse scandal that put an end to his 61-year coaching career at Penn State.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • xpeterboyx

    Sorry pal but you and all others who defer to faith when attempting to smokescreen reality just need to take a break and understand that raping boys or girls is not acceptable regardless of “faith”.

  • anabelle23

    Joe Paterno has as much to do with Jerry Sandusky and his perverted acts as American Airliens did with 9/11. This despicable act of scapegoating a dead man who dedicated his life to improving the propsects for young athletes and who embodied more values than all of detractors combined is inexcusable. We are terminating our annual endowment to PSU.

  • clifforddecker

    Look, the Freeh report has revealed without any doubt that Paterno is guilty of covering-up for Sandusky and for Paterno’s football program.

    Your idea here about Paterno being a scape-goat or wondering how anyone else would react is just so much of what is fed to mushrooms.

    The only way that the Pennsylvania State University is going to come to grips with this scandal and to move on with the core reason for any University, that is, learning, is for people like you to get off of the stump of preaching of ways to favorably resolve his role or to let Paterno off of the hook.

    He was guilty. His legacy is poop, and so is his name.

    Get off of the stump.

  • almostforgot

    Look back through the years, the college sports have had several out of control “coachs”. Outstanding leaders, mover’s shakers etc. and they have been held accountable for their misdeeds. Brown of Ohio State kicking players, the out of control basketball couch that threw chairs others. All have been forgiven because in the end it is the game and the money!

    Now that priest have been identified as violators of the young, who will next. Currently a large sex scandal at the Air Force Training base in Texas by those who abuse of authority is being investigated.
    Are we establishing crimes that we want to forgive and forget because of a higher need or cause?

  • llawrence9

    Very few people will walk away from their gravy train, because they need the job to feed their families.

    Institutions become more important than the people they were built to serve..

  • vzepijdu

    P U your excuses stink

  • brianmark

    Cute little bit of etymology and Bible history here.

    Paterno is still a disgusting man that never cared about children being raped right outside his office.

  • vinnie777


  • BBailey

    There are many in power who systematically abuse others at their whim and get away with it. Sad to say nothing ever changes in this world except disclosure of public figures and their errors.

  • armyboy

    Wow. This sounds exactly like the WaPo’s stance concerning the Catholic Church’s role in their child sex abuse scandal. Demanding that we all take a look at ourselves before condemning the church. Here I thought it was going to show the hypocracy of the WaPo and Progressives as a whole.

  • jsoles2001

    I disagree. For far too long, colleges have tolerated egregious behavior, fraud and outright ciminality because no will stand up to winning sports programs and their boosters. They should be held accountable and be kept in check.

  • Paula99

    no he is not a scapegoat – he was a man who was deified at penn state. and he was a deity with a community of leeches who needed his “win with honor” schtick to eek out their livings, taking down a shrine to the god of penn state is not making anyone a scapegoat. it is treating the enabler of a pedophile as what he was – a pathetic excuse for a human being. a con artist who let children keep getting raped to save his beloved “legacy” and to allow the leeches to keep feeding off of his waste of a corpse.

  • Jami

    I’m curious: Is Penn State giving back the MILLIONS of dollars that the Paterno Family has donated to the school as well??? Just saying, if we’re doing away with reminders and all!!
    I pray first for the kids.
    I pray second that the adults take responsibility!!!

  • ubetonit

    When ALL are guilty, no one is guilty.

  • Marty InVa

    Brad, EXCELLENT POINT ! What happpened? A pervert was allowed access and free reign because ‘a group men’ were too greedy and in love with their ego’s and careers to report abuse to children – THAT is what we do in this society? Your point. My point – Penn State is an excellent place of academia. 20,000 students should be our focus – MOVE ON PEOPLE!! (that’s YOU media) NCAA should have no sanctions other than following the courts example and making sure that those in the ‘know’ have no access to athletics. PENN STATE did not commit crimes. One sick pervert did. Let those few not tarnish a great University. Remove the statue, and MOVE ON. Go Lions! (for the record I am a VT fan)

  • pdt278

    I am sorry that you feel that PSU did not commit the crimes because you are wrong on this point. PSU not only committed a crime by refusing to follow the law and report Sandusky to the proper officials, they committed a greater crime by elevating Paterno to a level of God within the community. Because he had no equal on campus, Paterno’s decision not to besmirch the football program was left unchecked by even the university’s president.

    I personally am not very religious – many may consider my attitude close to atheism – I do know that the first commandment says that there shall only be one God. Unfortunately, due to his success on the football field, the supporters of PSU elevated Paterno to a level equating a God. They idolized him and thought that he could do no harm. Even when the ugliest issue of child perversion is thrust in their face, men of good standing and power, caved to the wishes of Paterno. I do hope that the supporters of PSU come to realize their mistake and the mistake of their leaders and look for penance with their god, because if there is ever a god and a Heaven, you could surely bet that he will be standing at the gates of Heaven and checking names.

  • pdt278

    Also, by the way I am a VT fan myself and realize that we too have the potential of the same problem arising in the future. Luckily, I believe we have been served by good leaders like Presidents Torgensen and Steger who will keep our CFB in proper check. I also believe that CFB has the hubris necessary to protect himself from believing that he too can do no harm. Yet, if he were ever to reach that magical plateau of winning a MNC, I worry it will be difficult to keep the horses in the barn. Maybe this tragedy will serve a proper warning to all that no man is a God – even the most ardent Beamer supporters.

  • Bob Washick

    There was a Catholic scheme to make Joe Paterno the biggest and the best. Joe merely had to mention a problem, and the path was cleared. When District Attorney Ray Gricar was investigating Sandusky ten years earlier, he disappeared, is legally dead, his hard drive missing, and his computer in the Susquehanna. Joe Paterno knew about that investigation.

    Many think Joe Paterno thought of Penn State, maybe in thought, but his deeds indicated otherwise. All of his Penn State royalties were given to the Catholic Campus Ministries Fund, and we have the Paterno Catholic Student Faith Center. The halo that surrounded his head on the mural was recently painted over. The statue removed. The Altoona Diocese should have no problem buying the statue creating a grotto for it with a $100 million campaign to do so. The money Penn State gets back should be used for Scholarships……..but fear not….no Diocese would spend money when it flowed like water into their bankaccounts…..Joe Paterno may be used for fundraising, but not to worry his legacy will live on in Altoona until it stops bringing in the cash. and his family should have no problem living off of the $5.5 million secret retirement deal he negotiated while the Sandusky case was in full swing. Yes, Joe you should have done more, but so typical you never mentioned your just negotiated reitrement package…..Catholic….certainly not Christian.

    To the invisible staff, faculty and students at Penn State – you have for years encouraged, promoted, influenced, developed and created research, materials and methods that have changed the lives of so many, and they will continue to do so, after all you are:: Penn State

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