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Immediate removal was the correct step

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / November 10, 2011

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There is no quick fix for the disturbing Penn State child molestation scandal, but the healing can now begin with the necessary firing of head coach Joe Paterno.

This is the single biggest story in the history of college sports, an activity that began with a quasi-rugby “football’’ game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. It is the biggest for two main reasons.

The first reason is that it involves a heinous crime whose perpetrators generally constitute the dregs of any prison society. There is a unanimity of public opinion: A special circle of Hades should indeed be the eternal resting place of child molesters.

The issue before us is a repugnant crime, not a relatively trivial matter such as a recruiting violation, or a dishonest act such as point shaving. Even a shocking murder at Baylor did not spark the public outrage that this accusation being leveled at longtime Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has.

The second reason is that the institution in question is Penn State University.

This institution could have been renamed “Joe Paterno University’’ at any time in the past quarter-century. No current person in American academia, nor any person in sports, has become identified with a school to the extent that Joe Paterno has become identified with Penn State University. Penn State is Joe Pa is Penn State is Joe Pa.

So intertwined is Joe Paterno with Penn State that it is no hyperbole to equate the relationship between Joe Paterno and Penn State to that of a charismatic leader and his cult followers.

Rule No. 1 of any cult: No matter how erroneous or damaging his judgment, no one tells the leader what to do. He, and he alone, decides a course of action.

That is exactly what had been going on at Joe Paterno U for years, and we were watching its ultimate manifestation. It was one thing when no one was able to persuade him to retire, but it was quite another level of intimidation when no one seemed to be in position to tell him that if he truly loves the school as much as he says he does that he would serve its best interests by retiring now, rather than waiting until after he had coached three games that, in the context of what’s happening in State College, Pa., are utterly meaningless.

For Joe Paterno to remain on the job for even one more second would have been beyond merely tone deaf or clueless. It would have been madness. It suggested that the leader of the cult had lost the capacity to think clearly. Was there no wife, brother, son, daughter, school authority figure, law enforcement official, or even respected peer intelligent and powerful enough to make him understand the counterproductive nature of his attempt to postpone a long-overdue retirement for three games and then, God forbid, a silly bowl game?

Because of what Joe Paterno has created at Penn State, and because Joe Paterno is Joe Paterno, this really is the biggest story in the 142-year history of college sports. A child molestation story would be news anywhere, but were the alleged molester in question a longtime assistant at Schools X, Y, and Z, would there be this deluge of national media or would the story be on the front page of USA Today two days running or would The New York Times have four separate stories on the subject in one sports section, as it did Tuesday?

This is the most scrutinized story college sports ever has known, and by allowing Joe Paterno to remain as head coach one second longer, the school authorities would have been telling the world that, rhetoric aside, they were not taking the issue as seriously as the rest of the world is. Joe Paterno’s immediate removal is a positive action speaking far louder than a trillion words.

His announcement yesterday certainly sounded sincere. He said, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.’’

He also said, “My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university.’’

What he was slow to acknowledge was that those “commitments’’ he spoke of have been rendered inconsequential by the shocking developments in question. No recruited player is going to bawl himself to sleep with Joe Paterno neither on the sideline nor in the press box for Saturday’s game with Nebraska.

Joe Paterno needed to demonstrate that he has his priorities in order by stepping away from the spotlight. His continuing presence would have been a public reminder that something truly awful was taking place at Penn State, er, Joe Paterno U. If he truly respected the victims and their families, he would have understood this without being told.

It is possible to feel compassion for Joe Paterno. Every last one of us has said or done things, or not said or done things, that we profoundly regret. Fortunately for most of us, the only people our failings have hurt are ourselves. Joe Paterno must live the rest of his life knowing that his failure to act more decisively had dire consequences for the alleged young victims of Jerry Sandusky. Who would wish to walk in those shoes?

Penn State had indulged Joe Paterno far too much. He didn’t have the good sense to retire without coaching another game. Sadly, that decision had to be made for him.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on He can be reached at