COLLINS: Paterno legacy complicated and bathed in gray

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)

Here I am, getting the feeling this is going to be a waste of time, space, reason and column inches that could have gone to something much more positive to mankind than the damn disgrace this story has become.

Here I am, thinking I’ll ultimately be dubbed a mindless, blind apologist for the university I went to, the football team I cover for a living and the coach who led it to national prominence; or conversely, a gutless, lazy dolt who will believe anything I’m told while ignoring an inconvenient truth floating just beneath my nostrils.

People want black and white when it comes to this story. For the good of all, it’s time to stop pretending this isn’t an issue bathed in gray.

Guys like me have had too many sleepless nights over stories like this: A Common Pleas Court judge from Philadelphia, Gary S. Glazer, offered a written opinion in a case between Penn State and its liability insurer — Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association — that indicated Joe Paterno may have known as early as 1976 that Jerry Sandusky, at the time a young, promising defensive assistant, had molested a boy.

In a 19-page opinion issued by Glazer, this appeared on Page 4:

“PMA claims Sandusky committed several acts of molestation early in his career at PSU: in 1976, a child allegedly reported to PSU’S Head Football Coach Joseph Paterno, that he (the child) was sexually molested by Sandusky.”

These 36 words dragged both the scandal and Paterno back into the national consciousness, providing his many detractors with the proof they needed to sink his name and reputation to the depths. Not only did Paterno know about Sandusky’s actions in 2001, they’ll say, he knew about it, somehow, a quarter century before that.

That said, this is hardly any more proof than we had before that Paterno was complicit in a cover-up.

For starters, it’s not even an allegation directly from a judge. It’s an allegation from an insurance company — the first two words of the sentence that has everyone talking confirms as much — fighting to not cover what Penn State hoped would be close to $60 million in settlements the university agreed to pay Sandusky’s victims.

Glazer’s sources are sealed depositions, and those aren’t opening, probably ever. Who knows what they contain. But it is known that then-university president Rodney Erickson told Bloomberg in September 2012 that the university wanted to reach a settlement with “ideally all” of victims who brought civil cases against it.

It stands to reason it did so with the vast majority because it had at least a modicum of concern the claims were legitimate. Understand, these were not claims proven at trial. If so, there’d be plenty of questions about a claim like this. Like, who else did this child tell, and if someone was told, why didn’t they make more noise? How did he get such intimate access to Paterno? What exactly did he tell him?

As much as it would help, we’ll never know the answer to those questions, though.

What I keep coming back to is that, in 1976, Sandusky was a linebackers coach. In 1977, he was named defensive coordinator, the job that would make him famous around the game. Can anyone so easily believe Joe Paterno looked into the eyes of a young child pleading with him to understand what Sandusky had been doing to him and was so heartless, so cold, that he not only ignored him, but promoted him the next year?

Penn State settlements covered 1971 Sandusky abuse claim

I don’t claim to have known Paterno all that well. But I have the same trouble his most devout supporters do when it comes to believing he could do that. That anybody could.

Right now, we have no concrete evidence he did. And yet, I don’t know what to think about Paterno. How sad is that after nearly five years? How can we not smell the smoke and think there isn’t a fire? How are we to reason the most powerful man in the university’s history didn’t catch wind of or grasp Sandusky’s ways in any of four different decades in which we’re now hearing there were concerns?

It’s why I’ll listen to the arguments by those who fight to restore Paterno’s legacy, but still struggle to understand why so many want to see a statue rebuilt, or the name of a stadium changed, to honor a man we should all have serious questions about. We may never get the information we need to feel comfortable doing any of that, fair or not to Paterno.

Try to understand every side to this issue when it comes to Paterno, every complicated facet of a tragedy that played out in front of us longer than we knew. But, what would that even solve? Does understanding and accepting get us anywhere but back to where this all started? To a bunch of kids who deserved better from a lot of people and didn’t get it.

That’s a shame that no exoneration of one man’s legacy could ever wash away, an embarrassment that doesn’t need to be bronzed. The only way it gets better is by all of us who are left learning from mistakes and taking better care of each other.

Yet, we’re too divided to recognize that.