|Penn State SID Jeff Nelson walks away from the media after saying Paterno wouldn't speak. (US Presswire)|
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It's like Penn State didn't understand how bad, how big, this scandal was until Tuesday morning.
As of mid-morning, the school was planning to hold its regular press conference -- it has one every Tuesday of game week -- with coach Joe Paterno. Emails were sent out to media members with satellite coordinates for live TV shots. Directions to the conference room inside Beaver Stadium were provided. So was an advisory that "the primary focus ... is to answer questions related to Penn State's Senior Day game with Nebraska this Saturday."
In other words, don't ask about that pesky little scandal, the one involving the legendary former defensive coordinator who has been charged with sexually abusing eight children over the course of several years while the school -- the vice president, the athletics director, the football coach himself -- failed to report what it knew about the alleged abuse to the police.
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Don't ask. Because Penn State won't tell. But hey, how about that Nebraska running game?
That was the Penn State plan, because Penn State's head is in the sand, the same place it's been since the first allegation against Jerry Sandusky was raised in 1998.
That was the plan. But it's not what happened, because at about 11:45 a.m. Tuesday a Penn State official took a look at the circus setting up outside Beaver Stadium and saw something the school obviously wasn't prepared to see: Hundreds of media members lined up, waiting to get into the conference room, waiting to aim microphones and cameras at Joe Paterno and ask him what he knew, when he knew it and why he thought doing the legal minimum -- reporting to his supervisor a graphic, eye-witness allegation of sexual abuse against Sandusky in one of the football program's showers -- was all that was required.
Regulars for Paterno's weekly press conference told me a normal turnout is between 15 and 25 media members, depending on the game. This being Nebraska week, we'll go on the upper end of that and project a crowd of 25. By 11 a.m., almost 90 minutes before the press conference was to begin, there were about 150 people in line. I know, because I showed up at 11 and I was No. 150. Within 20 minutes, there were 25 or 30 more people behind me, and they were still coming.
And then, suddenly, the line dissolved and we were all rushing forward, toward the stadium gates, where a man in a suit was standing imperiously, saying that a Penn State spokesman had an announcement to make. That spokesman, assistant athletics director Jeff Nelson, walked toward the throng of reporters with a grim look on his face and a piece of paper in his hand. He proceeded to read from the paper:
"Due to the ongoing legal circumstances centered around the recent allegations and charges," Nelson read aloud, "we have determined that today's press conference cannot be held and will not be rescheduled."
Then he distributed the statement to the media, me included, as we stood there in stunned silence. This can't be happening, right? That's what we were thinking. Penn State didn't just find a way -- sorry, another way -- to make this worse for itself, did it?
By golly, yes Penn State did. Instead of letting Paterno face questions, or even make a statement -- say something, anything, to let the world know that Paterno regrets being part of a system that allowed an alleged pedophile to roam State College for nearly a decade -- the school hid. Paterno hid. Nothing to see here, folks. Kindly go home. But remember, big game on Saturday!
Throw Tuesday's cowardice on the pile of bad decisions Penn State has made throughout this scandal, starting of course with the decision in 2002 to not report to police the allegations of Sandusky's shower molestation of a young boy. Since then, Penn State's AD (Tim Curley) and senior vice president (Gary Schultz) have been charged with failing to report the alleged assault and also with lying to a grand jury about it. Also since then, Penn State president Graham Spanier has put out a statement showing more support and care for Curley and Schultz than for the alleged victims. Also since then, Paterno has put out a self-serving statement that suggested he had no way of knowing in 2002 what Sandusky was allegedly capable of doing.
It has been one affront to decency after another for a school facing the darkest crisis in its history. This might even be the darkest crisis in the history of college athletics -- whether the school knows it or not.
And I'm not sure Penn State knows it. The school seems distracted by the big game Saturday. Nebraska's coming to town. Go Nittany Lions.