Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State

Why, Joe? Why didn’t you do more?

I feel a little bad for Joe Paterno. He’s the most successful coach in NCAA Division I history. He’s won national titles and had countless players make it to the next level, the NFL. When it comes to football, he’s almost universally respected. Unlike many other coaches at this level, he’s generally well liked, trusted, and seen as honest. In public, he’s plain spoken and humble; he comes across as a “good guy,” and although I don’t know him, I genuinely believe he is one.

In the statement after he was fired, “JoePa” said “he wished he’d done more.”  I believe he meant it; I do not think those were the words of a man who was focused on saving his reputation or whose statement had been shaped by a media consultant.

I’m a long-time fan of professional football, but I’ve never been a college football fan. Like many boys who’ve grown up in Pennsylvania over the last four decades, Paterno’s Nittany Lions have always been on my radar. Even though I wasn’t a fan, I always knew if they were having a good year or a bad one, if there was a quarterback controversy, if the defense was strong up the middle or a little soft, etc.  That knowledge was unavoidable if you paid any attention to sports.

The fans and the paraphernalia were also unavoidable.  In this moment, I can’t stop thinking about a bumper sticker that was popular when I grew up: “I believe in 2 things: God and JoePa”.

And I can’t stop wondering, why didn’t he do more?  When Jerry Sandusky started molesting little boys in the team’s locker room, a great many people found out what was going on. When Paterno was told, he reported it to his superiors, as his contract directs. And that was it.


I think people knew. I haven’t lived in Pennsylvania for almost 15 years, but over the last decade, I’ve repeatedly heard about efforts to oust Paterno. It was much more of an issue when the team did poorly than when they did well. In the bad years, it was a question of whether the game had passed Paterno by or whether he could still connect to the new generation. In good years, the concerns were more likely to be about money and power. For at least the last decade, if not longer, Paterno’s salary has been larger than his boss, the athletic director, as well as his boss, the university president. Some of those stories have also talked about Paterno having more power than the athletic director or the president.

As an outsider, I couldn’t figure out why people were trying to get rid of Paterno. It didn’t make sense to me. But if people knew–or heard enough whispers to believe–that a sexual predator was a salaried member of the football team and Paterno knew about it, then firing him would make sense.


In Jerry Sandusky’s last game as a coach, his defense just shut out another team in a bowl game. And that’s it, then he was done? He just stopped coaching and threw himself into running camps for children? Really?

He probably could have become coach–or at least, defensive coordinator–at another Division I school, and certainly at a lower level. He’d have garnered some looks from the NFL; at the time, they were rather hiring a lot of NCAA coaches and coordinators.

I think that someone who knew had the kind of connections and reputation that could be used to end Sandusky’s career. Sandusky was a Penn State football coach for 30 years, starting in 1969. Even football coaches need job references; people want to know how the guy acts, what he’s like with players (demanding, collegial), if he’s good at teaching football, what his character is like, etc.

People who sexually abuse children don’t just wake up one day and think “hmm, I’ve never done it before, but I’m going to start having sex with little kids today.”  Their attraction to young children starts early in life – typically during adolescence, occasionally not until their 20s.

Most of the time, they fight the attraction. If you live in the US in the 21st century, you know that having sex with young children is illegal and will destroy whatever life you’ve created. So you do what you can to resist the temptation.

Resistance has its limits, and some people go beyond those limits. Like Jerry Sandusky.

If you know someone who describes themselves as an addict and has been through treatment or a 12 step group, you may have heard them talk about what it’s like to need that drug. To crave it. To go through your day and, no matter what you’re doing, always be wondering when you can use. Those folks can also tell you that they knew very well what they had to lose, and yet they needed the drug so much that they risked it all. And, inevitability, lost it all.

For some pedophiles, it works the same way.


For Penn State football, JoePa was not only the coach, he was god, just like the bumper sticker said.  Sandusky was molesting kids in the locker room; it happened more than once and with more than one child. A graduate student saw Sandusky and reported it to Paterno. Housekeeping knew. It’s hard to imagine that some of the trainers and players didn’t know, or at least suspect.

And nobody called the police. Ever. Not Paterno. Not the folks he told, who were fired several days ago when the story broke. Not the grad student. Not anyone.

Why not? Joe, why didn’t you do more?

I think part of the answer to that is about “team” and “loyalty.”  If you’ve spent any time playing organized team sports, these are central concepts. Coaches preach the importance of putting the team first. It may be cliché – “there’s no I in team”–but it’s also the reality of the game. Someone has to do the inglorious jobs and do them well; offensive linemen rarely make the highlights or get the monster contracts, but if the line isn’t good, neither is the offense. Players are also expected to sit and let someone else play, whether for a moment or as the new starter, and to accept that with good grace.

It’s true for coaches too. Position coaches– the guys who work with just the line, or the receivers or whoever –are working their way up the ladder. People on the outside don’t really see these guys, but if they don’t do a good job, the team won’t do well either. And if they’re not doing a good job, they’ll be asked to step aside and accept it with good grace, just like the players.

Coaches are part of the team. Team and loyalty also mean that you  “have somebody’s back.” And as any sports fan knows, what happens in the locker room is a team matter, not a public matter. Players and coaches who reveal what goes on in the locker room quickly get ostracized by their teammates.  They also get a reputation of not being a team player, and that’s the kind of reputation you have to work hard to overcome.  And if  you don’t have star-level talent, you don’t get much time to change your reputation; in sports, there’s always another player or another coach waiting  to take your place.

Jerry Sandusky worked for Joe Paterno for 30 years. He was part of the team. He started off as a position coach and eventually worked his way up to defensive coordinator, one level down from head coach. For part of the 1990s, he was believed to be Paterno’s heir apparent as head coach. And then he stopped coaching.

When a player breaks the rules, the team  disciplines that player. Then he’s accepted back. If he keeps doing it, he’ll be let go. It works that way for coaches too.

But if the rule-breaking isn’t really about how someone performs their athletic duties, there’s only so much the coach and the team can do to help fix it.

If someone has worked for you for 30 years and you’ve promoted them to the point where they’re one organizational step below you, you probably like them and think they’re good at their job. You probably know them pretty well and know their family. And you probably want to help them. But when the problem is about wanting to have sex with children, you have to be an expert to help. Sure, you can “be there for them” and try to help, but good intentions aren’t enough here. They might make it better for a little while, but they’re not the solution. Just ask any addict you know.

Being there for your teammate and friend the abuser might help that person and their family, but it doesn’t help the victims or their families. They’re still out there, suffering. And probably wondering if there’s a new victim.

Experts are available, and the law is the law. Everyone knows that an adult who’s having sex with children needs help and is breaking the law. Football, a respectable job, friendship, team, and loyalty can’t fix that problem.

I feel bad for you Joe, but only a little.  I feel a lot worse for all those kids that Jerry Sandusky molested. You could have done more. And you should have.

Andrew Smiler, PhD, is a visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. His sexuality research focuses on normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds.  He is the author of the forthcoming “Challenging Casanova” (2012).


The GMP on Penn State:

We Are?

Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis

When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe

Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack

Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin

Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment, Mervyn Kaufman

The Tragic Lionization of Joe Paterno, Tom Ley

Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson

Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky

Beware the Legacy You Are Protecting: Winning Isn’t Everything, Eli Kaplan

Institutional Injustice: Why Rooting For Universities Breeds Immorality, Aaron Gordon

I Failed, Rick Morris

Sandusky-ed, Tim Green


photo: z0 / flickr

About Andrew Smiler

Andrew Smiler, PhD is a therapist, evaluator, author, and speaker residing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). He is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” and co-author, with Chris Kilmartin, of “The Masculine Self (5th edition)”. He is a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and has taught at Wake Forest University and SUNY Oswego. Dr. Smiler's research focuses on definitions of masculinity. He also studies normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him @AndrewSmiler.


  1. Andrew Smiler says:

    Good questions Alfred, although neither excuse Sandusky’s behavior. And from my article, they certainly don’t excuse the behavior of the folks around him who knew what was going on.

  2. I wonder if Sandusky was abused as a child? I wonder if he is mentally ill? Both of those questions would be in the media if this were a female abuser, why not for a male?

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