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After dropping the ball for nearly a decade, Penn State finally did the right thing last night when it fired head football coach Joe Paterno and its president Graham Spanier. It's about time -- though it may be too little, too late for the eight boys who were abused by former Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky over more than a decade. It especially is too little for the then-10-year-old who was raped in a locker room shower in 2002. A graduate assistant witnessed the rape and reported it to Paterno, who told university officials (including President Spanier) but not the police.
Was it an honest error in judgment? Or a conscious decision to put the reputation of a $50 million-per-year football program before the health and safety of children? We'll never know what went through Paterno's head when he made the decision but, as Elizabeth Gettleman points out over on Political MoJo, the timing of last night's announcement is troubling: Paterno "stayed coach just long enough to become the winningest coach in Division 1 college football history, a record he achieved two weeks ago," 11 months after a grand jury investigation confirmed his knowledge of Sandusky's crimes.
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What's perhaps even more troubling is the reaction on Penn State's campus when news of Paterno's firing broke at 10 PM last night. Students tore down two lampposts and threw rocks and fireworks at police. "Make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach," one student told the New York Times. "They tarnished a legend."
Did they? Or did Joe Paterno do the tarnishing himself?
On a fundamental level, we follow sports because we're looking for heroes. We want to see mere mortals do the impossible -- throw an amazing pass, win more games than anyone ever, exceed all of our hopes and expectations. Every game is a new opportunity for heroism, and so we watch because we might get to witness something extraordinary. To the Penn State community, Joe Paterno has been that kind of hero. He exceeded those expectations and created those extraordinary moments, season after season.
But the sad truth is, there was a day back in 2002 when Paterno had a chance to be a real hero -- or really, just be a good person -- for a little boy who desperately needed one. He didn't make that play. More children may have been abused as a result of his inaction. And unlike a failed football season, those kids (now young adults) don't get another shot at childhood.