HBO’s Paterno, with Al Pacino as famed coach, probes scars of Sandusky scandal

first_imgJoe Paterno coached football at Pennsylvania State University for 62 years, 46 of them as head coach, winning 409 games (a major college record) and two national championships. Five times he was chosen Coach of the Year by his peers in the American Football Coaches Association. His Nittany Lions’ 1987 Fiesta Bowl victory over the Miami Hurricanes was the most watched college football game at the time. He will be remembered, though, for just one season, 2011, when he was fired by the Penn State board of trustees in the midst of the ugliest sports-related scandal in American history. Which is not to call the rape of dozens of boys a sports scandal. He could have imagined no more bitter irony than being remembered for just one season. Read more Kareem Abdul-Jabbar US sports The NFL’s plan to protect America from witches College football Penn State sexual abuse scandal Paterno, though, rose through the ranks to become something his parents could have never envisioned: as the beloved JoePa, he became the most venerated father figure in sports, a man who sincerely believed that his primary role was educator and that his function as a football coach was to prepare for life. As a character in the film says, “JoePa was the only one who ever said, ‘These kids are scholars.’”Jerry Sandusky revealed weaknesses in Paterno’s makeup that no one, least of all JoePa himself, knew were there. On Saturday night, 2 March 2002, Mike McQueary, an assistant football coach, came to Paterno’s house shaken by something he had seen in the football team’s shower room. He wasn’t sure exactly what he had witnessed, though he was sure, at least, that he saw Sandusky (by then no longer on the coaching staff) naked with a boy McQueary thought was about 10 years of age.Exactly why McQueary, a strapping young man and a former football player himself, didn’t do something to stop the boy from being assaulted has never been made clear. In any event, instead of calling the campus police, he called his father, who further compounded the mistake by telling him to go to … the head football coach. Paterno did exactly what was required by law – and no more. At the time, Pennsylvania law stated that a state employee who learned about suspected child abuse was to report the incident to his immediate supervisor. So Paterno called not the town or campus police or even the university president. He called athletic director Tim Curley, another of his former assistant coaches. Curley then contacted vice president of finance and business, Gary Schultz, whose duties included supervision of the campus police. That is, Paterno called Curley at least 24 hours after he talked to McQueary. Curley and Schultz eventually met with McQueary; no one is sure how long they waited to do so, but one source estimated that it might have been 25 days later.  President Spanier was informed, but it appears to have been after the 27 March meeting with McQueary. According to testimony he later gave the grand jury, Paterno said McQueary was “distraught” and that he “wasn’t specific.”  This will leave Paterno’s supporters and detractors forever wondering if he was lying or simply naïve. If McQueary was “distraught,” did Paterno not think that he had seen something upsetting? If McQueary “wasn’t specific” when he spoke to Paterno, why did the coach not ask him to be specific? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Paterno simply didn’t want to know what happened and was hoping that the matter would just go away, thus avoiding a maelstrom of bad publicity for Penn State. After complaints from several victims, the Pennsylvania state attorney general initiated an investigation and convened a grand jury that indicted Curley, Schultz and Spanier; JoePa was not indicted.In the film, after the scandal broke into the news more almost a decade after McQueary saw Sandusky with the boy in the locker room, Pacino, his face darkened with doubt, asks his family “What is … sodomy?” (Shocked, no one answers.) Is it possible that a conservative devout adult Catholic could not know what sodomy is? One wants to shout out loud, Isn’t it a little late to ask that question?The actions of these four men between March 2002 and the 2011 grand jury investigation was … nothing. Actually, they did one thing. According to the grand jury report, after the 2002 incident, someone, presumably Curley, told Sandusky ”not to bring any boys on campus” and took his keys to the football building. (Sandusky had retired from Penn State in 1999 and was given an “emeritus” rank which allowed him access to the university’s recreational facilities.)Taking away his keys solved nothing: Sandusky was still bringing boys to the Penn State as late as 2009, when the last sex abuse charge, the one that got a grand jury involved, was pressed by the mother of a 12-year-old boy. As the film reveals, the rumors about Sandusky went back as far as 1976. Paterno did nothing and Sandusky remained his assistant coach for the next 22 seasons.Wisely, Paterno (the film) doesn’t try to get inside the coach’s head, but sticks almost entirely to the known facts, many uncovered and documented by Sara Ganim, the 23-year-old journalist who broke the Sandusky case for the Patriot-News. Her courageous reporting, often in the face of hostility from rabid JoePa supporters, won her a Pulitzer Prize.Levinson and scriptwriters Debora Cahn and John C Richards reveal, with a refreshing lack of piety, Joe Paterno’s dark nights of the soul as we see the torment of a man who spent nearly 70 years building a legacy only to see it burst into flames. And worse, to a man whose self-proclaimed mission was to elevate the lives of young men, to know his lack of courage caused unspeakable suffering and irreparable harm to so many boys and their families.Wisely, too, Paterno doesn’t try to probe Sandusky’s psyche but keeps him in the background as a shadowy figure whose bland smile recalls Hannah Arendt’s famous judgement that Eichmann reflected “the banality of evil.”There’s a second shadow hovering around Paterno, that of Sara Ganim, played, in an artful and subdued performance, by Riley Keough. Her reporter is the film’s surprise moral center, a working class heroine without whom the story may never have been fully told.Joe Paterno died of lung cancer in January 2012, two and a half months after he was fired. In a hagiographic biography published seven months later, sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote, “Joe knew that football is not the most important thing.”  The tragedy of Joe Paterno’s life, though, is that Paterno did not know that. In nearly every important decision of his life, from choosing not to study law to protecting the reputation of the program he had built over the safety and well-being of children, Joe Paterno chose football. In the end, his life is a cautionary tale on big time college football that was much different from the platitudes he espoused. Perhaps Paterno is a sports story after all. HBO Of course, what brought down Paterno and led to jail sentences for Penn State president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, and resulted in, to date, more than $92m in settlements, was much more than a mere sports scandal.  But the many years of disgraceful silence that covered up the crimes would not have been possible if not for the power and prestige the Penn State football program wielded over the university, and Joe Paterno – affectionately known as JoePa – was the football program. As a character asks, rhetorically, in Barry Levinson’s searing and emotionally exhausting HBO drama Paterno: “A crime against children happened.  Why are we talking about Joe Paterno?”The answer to that question is that no one would watch if the film was entitled Spanier or even Sandusky – the latter being Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach who is currently serving 30 to 60 years after being found guilty of 45 charges of rape and other forms of sexual assault against young boys, many of the offenses committed in the Penn State football facilities.Paterno is portrayed by just about the only actor who could pull it off, Al Pacino. Pacino, whose first feature film was 1971’s Panic in Needle Park, has been making films almost as long as Paterno was head coach at Penn State. He has played a breathtakingly wide range of characters, including drug user, drug dealer, Mafia don, Mafia hit man, multiple cops, good lawyers and crooked lawyers, real estate shark, race car driver, bank robber, playwright, music producer, suicide doctor, the devil and even a football coach. But Joe Paterno might be the most demanding part he’s ever taken on, and it’s rare for even a great actor to bring so much insight to a character.Like Paterno, Pacino was born to Italian-American parents and raised in New York City. He doesn’t really look like the Joe Paterno we saw often on TV over the years, but he inhabits the role so effortlessly that at times you forget he’s acting. He was a child of the Depression who chose football over the objections of his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer; no second generation Italian-American parent would have been anxious to see their son pursue a career so far outside the realm of respectability.   Since you’re here… Topics Support The Guardian College sports Share on Facebook Share on Messenger Share on LinkedIn Sign up to our Film Today email Share on WhatsApp Reuse this content … we have a small favour to ask. More people, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we made the choice to keep our reporting open for all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. 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