OPED: Honoring Paterno an insult to victims of sexual abuse

Jared Rosenblatt
Tribune News Service

There is justified outrage over the sweetheart sentence that Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer, served following his conviction for his sexual assault of a young woman. As bad as Turner's vile and despicable actions were, they pale in comparison to what Pennsylvania State University is about to do.

Andrew Limauro, a sophomore from Pittsburgh stands outside Beaver Stadium protesting the school's decision to honor former head coach Joe Paterno, before Penn State takes on Temple on Saturday.

On Sept. 17, Penn State honored former head coach Joe Paterno at a home football game to commemorate Paterno's first-ever game. This comes four years after removing a bronze statue of Paterno from outside the very stadium where former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky abused a young boy in a shower.

Now the university has honored Paterno, who, according to the report by Louis Freeh on Penn State's role in the case, "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade." Paterno admitted in a 2011 grand jury proceeding that he knew Sandusky "was doing something with the youngster ... sexual in nature." Yet, instead of placing a permanent sticker on its football helmets to recognize sexual-abuse victims or erecting a permanent tribute outside the stadium, the talk around Happy Valley is to resurrect the statue of Paterno.

Penn State's continual celebration of its disgraced football coach encourages victims of sexual abuse to remain silent. Two of the most common reasons why victims do not disclose their abuse is fear of not being believed and how the system will treat them. Penn State's commemoration of Paterno promotes the perception that colleges and universities provide preferential treatment to athletics, rather than victims in sexual-abuse investigations.

Paterno, boss and confidant of convicted pedophile Sandusky for more than 30 years, knew of Sandusky's predilection and did nothing to protect children. We are told that there are hundreds of successful graduates of his football program, including doctors, lawyers, and teachers, so his disgraceful inaction is contrasted to the good achieved by those graduates. But when informed of the abuse in his football program, Paterno responded, "I don't want to hear about any of that kind of stuff, I have a football season to worry about," according to a recently released deposition of "John Doe 150," one of the 32 persons who Penn State paid to settle the Sandusky litigation.

Paterno had an opportunity to protect young victims of sexual abuse and instead chose football. As a result of his choice not to involve law enforcement, children were sexually abused. Yet today, Penn State wants you to only remember the national championships and ignore the painful memories the abused families will never forget.

Brock Turner spent three months in jail, which was, without question, too short. But the conversation about sexual abuse should now be focused on the shameful acts of Penn State. Paterno was entrusted with the lives of student-athletes and had both an ethical and professional obligation to report the abuse directly to authorities. He had an obligation to pick up the phone and contact law enforcement himself and not "worry about" football. Instead, Paterno made a conscious decision not to call law enforcement. Football won.

In announcing its tribute to Paterno, the university loudly declared that college football is more important to its institution than encouraging victims of sexual abuse to report their crimes to law enforcement. As a university, it declared football is more important than the victims who suffered under the watch of its beloved coach and, more importantly, all victims who remain silent about the sexual abuse they have suffered.

Even more disgraceful is the talk of Penn State permanently resurrecting Paterno in bronze. Continually honoring Paterno would mock and obstruct the recovery of the victims of Sandusky's atrocities.

The announcement to commemorate Paterno, instead of placing something permanent outside the football stadium to honor the victims of sexual abuse, sets a dangerous standard for education and collegiate athletics.

Penn State, it is not too late to do something about this.

— Jared Rosenblatt, an associate law professor at Drexel University's Kline School of Law, was a senior assistant district attorney in New York.