Football

Ron Bracken: Climate of secrecy led to crumbling of Camelot

For the CDTNovember 11, 2011 

So this is how it ends, a career that was once glistening and unassailable, collapses under the weight of an unimaginable scandal?

We all, those of us who observed Joe Paterno and his program over many years, felt that it would end badly for him but none of us could have concocted such a horrific denouement.

Maybe he would let his anger get the best of him and he’d physically assault an official or a member of the media. Or maybe he would say something so egregious or ill-considered that he couldn’t undo it. But no one would have, could have, ever foreseen that his demise would be the result of a terrible lack of judgment involving a sordid crime against children. That was unthinkable from a man who by all accounts cherished family and children.

But in the end, not being morally outraged at the alleged misconduct of Jerry Sandusky, once one of his most valued and trusted assistants, caused Paterno’s career to crumble like an ancient building in an earthquake.

It’s way premature to make any statement about what his legacy will be. History will determine that. It’s not premature, however, to say that it will be stained by the revelations of the past week. If you include his 409 wins you also have to include this sordid episode. If you include his philanthropy toward his university you must also recognize his failure to protect young lives from the alleged advances of a predator.

He may not have known what happened prior to 1998 when the first incident involving Sandusky and a child are reported to have occurred but from that moment on he should have been on high alert to the possibility of it happening again.

Maybe he was. Maybe he was and chose to ignore or dismiss the warning signs that had to have been there. We can’t profess to know. What we do know is that by his inaction a man was enabled to listen to whatever demons haunted him and do their bidding.

How could this happen in Happy Valley, the Camelot of college football?

To answer that you have to understand the culture that has prevailed for at least as long as Paterno was in charge of the football program. It was, right up until he was removed from his position Wednesday night, a climate of Kremlin-like secrecy, of tightly-controlled access, of rule by dynamic terror. It was understood that if you wanted to be around his program in a professional aspect, you did so at his pleasure and by his rules.

And that kind of climate is a petri dish for what happened in what must now be called the Sandusky Scandal.

But the toxic climate isn’t confined to the football program at Penn State. It’s pervasive on the campus from the lowest worker in the Office of the Physical Plant to the corner offices in Old Main. It’s all about keeping your mouth shut, doing your job, looking the other way at the various indiscretions and currying favor with those above you in the food chain in order to keep or improve your position. Stray from these guidelines at your own peril.

Of course the ESPN’s of the world don’t care about a carpenter or a secretary. It’s football that draws their cameras and drives their ratings. And when a scandal as salacious as this one is uncovered, it’s hard to find parking spaces for all of the satellite trucks that roll into town.

They can’t conceive of how something like this could take place in such an idyllic setting. That’s because they’ve never been able to peek behind the cloak of secrecy that enshrouds the Football Complex and its occupants.

Perhaps two isolated incidents can help them understand just how controlling Paterno was and how image-conscious the school is.

It was in the preseason of either the 1985 or 1986 season and, as was standard procedure at the time, a call was placed to Paterno after the first week just to get an update on how things were proceeding at that point. Various personnel questions were asked and answered until the final one, which was about the injury situation. “Nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual bumps and bruises,’’ Paterno said.

As came to light only an hour or so later, at the very time he was saying nothing unusual had happened, one of his players was laying in a hospital bed in Hershey, partially paralyzed from a practice collision. By most standards that is not only unusual but newsworthy. Fortunately, the player recovered and went on to finish his career at Penn State.

But were it not for a phone call from the player’s hometown paper, which had been told of the injury by the player’s family, it would have never come to light. For whatever reason, Paterno elected to be less than honest about it.

Flash ahead to 1992. J.T. Morris, a talented running back, wanted to leave Penn State. Paterno refused to sign his release, as he did last winter with Rob Bolden. A call to Morris confirmed that he was at home in Virginia working in a post office waiting for Paterno to release him. “My future is not in my hands now,’’ Morris said. “It lies in a pen on Joe Paterno’s desk.’’

When contacted for comment on Morris’ comments, Paterno dismissed them, saying he and J.T. would talk. A short time later the phone on my desk rang and it was Budd Thalman, Penn State’s sports information director at the time. He was asking about the conversation with Morris, wanting to know what J.T. had said. And when he was told that I wouldn’t divulge specifics, only saying that it wasn’t complimentary to Paterno and the football program, his response was classic Penn State: “I just worry that it (the story) will hurt the (football) program.’’

God forbid that would happen. But that’s the attitude that prevails at Penn State: Protect the image at all costs and if the truth has to be whitewashed to hide it, well, break out the buckets and brushes.

And that’s how this current debacle was allowed to take root and grow. Any word of it leaking out would damage the pristine image. So one after another, five adult males dismissed it as inconsequential, doing the bare minimum to even acknowledge it, then passing it up the chain of command and getting back to the business of cultivating and polishing the image. So at the risk of an unsightly blemish on the program, young lives were permanently altered in terrible ways.

Now Penn State’s precious image and reputation have suffered the very thing it tried so hard to avoid — national exposure as a place where an assistant football coach allegedly was enabled to prey on and victimize young boys and men who could have stopped it looked away.

And now, for the first time in a long time, that is an image that is accurate.

Ron Bracken is former sports editor of the Centre Daily Times.

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