Paterno: Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards

Why did the Board of Trustees of Penn State University put a humiliating end to the unblemished career of 84-year-old football coach, Joe Paterno?  In announcing the Board’s decision to fire him on the evening of November 9, the Vice-Chairman of the Board, John Surma Jr., spoke vaguely about the need to “make a change in the leadership.”

The unmentioned reason was apparently what Mike McQueary, the football team’s wide receivers coach, recently told a grand jury about witnessing the anal rape of a ten-year-old boy in the shower room of the football team nine years earlier.  McQueary claimed that he told Paterno what he had seen, and Paterno referred him to Tim Curley, the Athletic Director.  Paterno recalled that McQueary said merely that he had observed former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, behaving inappropriately with a ten-year-old boy in the shower room.  In short, the case for firing Paterno rested on what McQueary remembered telling him in 2002, what McQueary told Curley, and, later, what McQueary told the grand jury.  Paterno and Curley both deny receiving explicit information about an anal rape.  Who is to be believed?

Two reasons invite skepticism about McQueary’s recollection of what he had told Paterno and Curley:

  1. Paterno was known for his concern for the academic and personal welfare of his football players, not merely for their contribution to success on the gridiron. This concern is believed to explain the high graduation rate of Penn State football players and their intense loyalty to him.  Would such a person treat cavalierly information that a member of his staff raped a small boy in the team shower room?   
  2. McQueary  wrote an email to a close friend on November 8 saying, “I did stop it, not physically … but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room … I did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police …”

If McQueary did stop a rape and later go to the police and tell them what happened, the police have a record of it – unless they deliberately covered up a serious crime.  If McQueary behaved so well, why would he have kept Paterno in the dark about what happened?  More likely, McQueary did not alert Paterno and his superiors at the University in 2002 and Paterno is the victim of a bum rap.


  • Jackson Toby

    Jackson Toby is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University, where he was director of the Institute for Criminological Research. He is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

2 thoughts on “Paterno: Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards

  1. Several issues deserve to be discussed separately:
    1. Did Sandusky actually perform anal rape on a pre-adolescent boy in 2002? What he did in other cases is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the charges in this case.
    2. Did McQueary observe this as it was occurring or did he mistakenly confuse a physical encounter with a rape? Or did he exaggerate nine years later what he saw in 2002?
    3. Was what McQueary did in 2002 morally and legally appropriate? According to his own account, he didn’t appear to take very drastic action at the time.
    4. What did McQueary tell Joe Paterno and the two University officals in 2002 as compared with what the three of them remember his telling them? Memory is notoriously fallible even after ten minutes. In order to believe the account of the three University officials, we don’t have to believe that McQueary lied; his memory of the events might simply be incorrect.
    5. Grand juries are well known to indict innocent people because they are influenced strongly by evidence provided only by prosecutors. (The accused person does not have an opportunity to present his case to the grand jury.) Remember that the Duke lacrosse players were indicted by a grand jury for rape at the prodding of a prosecutor who was later disbarred for improper behavior in the case.
    Jackson Toby
    Professor of Sociology Emeritus
    Rutgers University

  2. This argument that Paterno was unfairly fired presupposes that there was a single incident–the 2002 one–that Paterno did or did not act upon. But the grand jury report, as the media coverage of this has made clear, indicates that there were multiple incidents known to the athletic staff as occurring at the football facility. It becomes increasingly difficult to defend Paterno if his failure to act was not on the 2002 incident but in permitting Sandusky to remain hanging around the place after his retirement in 1999 when the stories kept coming up. Paterno probably did run a very first class program. But he didn’t deal with the creepy former staff member about whom stories kept circulating. That’s the failing. Sometimes you have to let your friend go when they are doing things that you don’t condone.

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