10 Years Later: The Joe Paterno Saga

The Penn State Nittany Lions football team is getting ready to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day (https://www.outbackbowl.com/).   The situation for the program is much different than ten years ago, when PSU was getting ready to kick off with Houston on January 2nd of 2012 in the Ticket City Bowl (Spousta, 2012).

My Dream Job

I grew up in an abusive household.  My mother was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of my father, and I was a victim of child abuse at the hands of my father.  This put me in a unique situation in 2011, when I had my dream job.

When I was twelve or thirteen, my mother submitted for me to be the guest host on a local television talk show in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  The regular co-host had off on Wednesdays, so they got someone from the community to fill in for him on the second chair.  Since I was so into sports, my mother thought it would be a great learning experience to be on the show to see what it was like to be involved in broadcasting.

During the show, I interviewed the lead sports reporter for the television station, and an AHL hockey player for the Hershey Bears.  I joked about wanting to be a sports reporter if I didn’t have a long career playing professional sports.

Almost twenty years later, I was living that dream.  I was working as the sports director for a news organization in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  In the subsequent years, I had worked hard enough to be in the press box covering games with that same sports reporter I interviewed when I was in middle school.  

Occasionally, I would have to cover stories that would be difficult as a survivor of abuse.  The most notable example was when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in 2009 and 2010 (Broadly Staff, 2015).   There would be some fans who would try to rationalize Roethlisberger’s actions, and defend him, but nothing was going to prepare me for what I would experience in 2011.

JoePa and Penn State Football

Anybody who didn’t grow up in Pennsylvania in the last third of the 20th Century can’t possibly understand the influence Joe Paterno, nicknamed “JoePa,” had on the Keystone State.  He became the head football coach at Penn State in 1966, and three years later, he hired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.  Paterno had been the coach for the Nittany Lions for such a long time, that he recruited my father when he was a high school football player.  

On October 29th of 2011, Paterno became the winningest head football coach in Division 1 history, when a last-second Illinois field goal attempt missed, in a ten-to-seven Penn State victory over the Fighting Illini at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.  JoePa had passed legendary Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson for the honor (Associated Press, 2011).

In the post-game press conference, Paterno stated, “It really is something I’m very proud of, to be associated with Eddie Robinson.”  He added, “Something like this means a lot to me, an awful lot. But there’s a lot of other people I’ve got to thank” (Associated Press, 2011).

Surely one of the people he had to thank was former-defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.  Penn State was nicknamed “Linebacker U” for all of the fantastic players the team had at that position over the years.  Sandusky was the linebacker coach starting in 1970, and was both defensive-coordinator and linebacker coach from 1977 until 1999.  It is undeniable that Sandusky’s time coaching the linebackers at “Linebacker U” had to have played a big part in Joe Paterno winning all of those games (Athlon Sports, 2011).

November 5, 2011

Exactly one week after becoming the all-time winningest coach in division one college football history, the sky came crashing down for Paterno and the Penn State football program.  Jerry Sandusky had been arrested for multiple counts of sexual assault against minors.  Many of these assaults had taken place on Penn State property, and Paterno had been made aware of several the incidents (Collegian News Staff, 2021).

In my job, I was forced to immediately jump into action to make sure my weekend people had everything they needed to cover this explosive and sensitive story.  My part-time employees were sports reporters, and I had to make sure that they were able to use the proper terminology for what had become a news story.  It didn’t hit me right away the gravity of the situation.  

I had never been a Penn State fan as a kid.  When my father met Paterno during the recruiting process, he was actually unimpressed with the coach.  There was not the same mystique around the football program for me as there was for many of my co-workers.  In fact, the news director was my direct boss.  He had often told me about the two famous men from Pennsylvania who he idolized, and who had been close to heroes in his eyes.  Those two men were Joe Paterno and Bill Cosby.

As the weeks and months continued, our coverage of the story changed.  As the sports director, I was more responsible for the on-the-field aspects of everything happening with the scandal.  Joe Paterno was fired; an interim-head coach was named; Penn State played a bowl game; a new head coach was hired; and in January of 2012, Paterno passed away with cancer.  All of the items having to do with the Sandusky trial, and any other legal ramifications the institution was facing would be handled by the news department.  

A Silent Survivor 

For me, the hardest part of the situation was being a survivor, and having to navigate a newsroom filled with people who still idolized this man.  To whatever extent people believed Paterno was responsible for the actions of Jerry Sandusky, he was made known of them.  There was extensive testimony stating that an assistant coach had brought it to Paterno’s attention.  In fact, that assistant coach was vilified in the fanbase.

As a survivor, we normally assume that most people think like us.  Maybe they have not experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, or child abuse, but you assume that they still find these things as abhorrent as you find them.  It was disheartening to hear these people bend over backwards to defend a cover-up of sexual assault towards children.

What would they think if they knew I was a survivor of child abuse?  

When Paterno died in January of 2012, the news director sent me up to State College to interview people going to Paterno’s statue to pay respects.  We didn’t talk to organizations that help with child abuse victims.  We didn’t talk to mental health professionals, who could help survivors deal with this monster being lionized.  I, a survivor of child abuse, was sent to get the reaction of people who idolized this man.  The next day, the news director even brought in a cardboard cutout of Paterno to put in the news room.  These were the conditions under which I was forced to work as a survivor of child abuse.

For years following the arrest, I would be subjected to hearing the news director complain about broadcasters on Penn State games talking about the Joe Paterno scandal.  There would be conversations about how the NCAA should not have stripped the program of wins, so that Paterno eventually fell back below Eddie Robinson on the all-time list.  

You Are Not Wrong

Our mission at Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence is to make the problems surrounding domestic violence and abuse more visible.  This not only helps to fight against domestic violence, but it also allows survivors to see that they are not alone.  We are constantly being put in situations that make us uncomfortable because of what we have witnessed and experienced.  At work, school, church, or any number of other locations, we have to make decisions about when to speak up for ourselves.  

The reason I wanted to share this personal story is to remind you that you aren’t alone.  I was tortured inside about whether I covered the Joe Paterno scandal properly in my reporting.  I was worried that I acquiesced to my boss in many situations.  I felt guilty; like I sold out the movement for my dream job.  As survivors, we are often forced to battle with these questions.  The process of healing and surviving is not one that has a definitive endpoint.  Situations will arise throughout your life to remind you of what you experienced.  

It has been ten years since the Joe Paterno scandal broke.  Looking back on the graphic court reports I had to read, and the triggering events that were literally dropped on my desk, I take a lot of personal pride in the way I handled myself professionally.  The fact that I did worry about how I was covering the story just shows that I brought a survivor’s mindset to a room where there wasn’t one.        

References

Associated Press (2011), Late missed field goal helped Joe Paterno break record for wins by Division I coach, https://www.espn.com/college-football/recap?gameId=313020213

Athlon Sports (2011), Jerry Sandusky: From Rising Star to Most Hated Man in America, Athlon Sports, https://athlonsports.com/college-football/jerry-sandusky-rising-star-most-hated-man-america

Broadly Staff (2015), Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, Twice Accused of Sexual Assault, Vice.com, https://www.vice.com/en/article/bmwe8w/ben-roethlisberger-quarterback-twice-accused-of-sexual-assault

Collegian News Staff (2021)., Timeline: The sex abuse case of Jerry Sandusky, Daily Collegian, https://www.collegian.psu.edu/sandusky/timeline-the-child-sex-abuse-case-of-jerry-sandusky/article_a0c48260-52e0-11ec-b65e-2bd1a3594e2b.html

Spousta, T. (2012). Penn State and Houston Savor a Second Chance, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/02/sports/ncaafootball/ticketcity-bowl-is-second-chance-for-penn-state-and-houston.html