Should Joe Paterno Survive Penn State’s Child Sex Abuse Scandal?

Football head coach Paterno, of all people, was never supposed to go out like this

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Scott Audette / Reuters

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno

If it’s all true — or if any part of it is true, really – it’s difficult to imagine football head coach Joe Paterno surviving the unspeakable scandal unfolding at Penn State.

Name something worse to hit college sports, frequently a cesspool for hypocrites and cheaters. It’s not easy. On Nov. 5, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office revealed the disgusting allegations: Jerry Sandusky, a defensive coordinator at Penn State for 33 years who retired after the 1999 season, was charged with seven counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, four counts of unlawful contact with a minor, four counts of endangering the welfare of a child and a host of other charges related to the sexual abuse of eight minors. If convicted, Sandusky, 67, could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Two Penn State administrators — athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz — face perjury charges for allegedly lying about their knowledge of Sandusky’s behavior. They were also charged with failing to report the incident to authorities, as required by Pennsylvania law. Curley and Schultz both denied the charges. Curley put himself on administrative leave, while Schultz has stepped down. Sandusky has also denied all charges. A preliminary hearing in the case is set for Wednesday.

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For good reason, attention has turned to Paterno’s role in this whole mess. According to grand jury testimony, in 2002 a graduate assistant witnessed Sandusky, who in 1977 founded a charity for at-risk youth called Second Mile, subjecting a 10-year-old boy to anal intercourse in the showers of the Penn State football facility. (The grand jury report is here. Fair warning: it’s an awful document.)

The assistant (identified by the Harrisburg Patriot-News as recruiting coordinator–wide receiver coach Mike McQueary) reported the incident to Paterno, but Paterno testified that the assistant left out the more graphic details. “It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report,” Paterno said in a statement. “Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky.” Paterno knew it was sexual in nature, according to the report.

Paterno then informed his boss, Curley, about the incident. The prosecution did not charge Paterno with any crimes, and he will reportedly testify for the prosecution at Sandusky’s trial. “I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention,” Paterno said.

Paterno may have met his legal obligation. But if the charges against Sandusky hold up, he failed his moral obligation miserably. Penn State’s football motto is “Success with honor.” College football coaches at large, state-run institutions are more influential than many governors. And few are as revered as Paterno, who on Oct. 29 won the 409th game of his 46-year career, a Division I record.

So Paterno, the biggest man on campus, can’t just punt this problem to a university bureaucrat and wash his hands of it. He should have followed up with Curley and made sure that the allegations were reported to authorities, and then let the criminal investigation run its course. If Curley wasn’t going to do it, Paterno should have done it himself.

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Sure, it’s not easy to call the cops on someone you know. But Paterno must think McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback, was credible. If he didn’t, McQueary would not be on the Penn State staff. The fact that McQueary’s eyewitness account involved a shred of inappropriate contact between Sandusky and a minor mandated Paterno to act, whether or not Sandusky was a friend or just a former co-worker. Let the cops figure out if Sandusky should be punished.

Even worse, neither Paterno nor anyone else at Penn State had the decency to try to identify the child who was allegedly abused. They did nothing to help someone who may have suffered the worst possible crime within their own doors. What’s more heartbreaking, and enraging, than that?

After the alleged incident, Sandusky was still afforded unfettered access to the Penn State football program and its facilities. According to the grand jury report, Curley and Schultz prohibited Sandusky only from bringing children on campus. A Yahoo! Sports report said Sandusky was spotted working out in the Penn State weight room just last week, which is incredible, since Penn State leaders — Paterno, Curley, university president Graham Spanier — were aware of the criminal investigation. They all testified in front of a grand jury. How could they let Sandusky hang around? Wouldn’t they consider the risk that he might abuse again?

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Paterno, of all people, was never supposed to go out like this. Sports scandals rarely hold much shock value anymore. When Tiger Woods was caught cheating on his spouse, was it all that surprising? He’s a billionaire athlete, on the road many weeks out of the year. People have long suspected that Lance Armstrong took performance-enhancing drugs. If that were the case, well, everyone else was doing it during the grueling Tour de France.

Paterno was almost beyond reproach. Sure, some people in State College have thought that aging “JoePa,” though a lovable, benevolent patriarch, has lost his touch. That he should finally step aside and let a younger, more energetic voice guide the Nittany Lions into the 21st century.

Now when we see Paterno coaching up in the press box this Saturday during Penn State’s home finale against Nebraska (in the preseason, a player accidentally ran into him on the practice field, injuring his hip and pelvis, which has made it uncomfortable for him to stand), we won’t be thinking about football. We’ll be thinking about all the alleged abuses. What did Paterno really know? If these charges are true, how can we ever view him in the same light again? Who cares about all the wins? We’re not talking about a recruiting violation here. We’re talking about an unspeakable violation to innocent children.

We don’t see how Joe Paterno can still coach.

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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