Enabling Evil

by Casey Barrett

Swimming through the darkness at Penn State…

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

The legend is dead. Six decades of winning football games made him a deity in a small and happy town. But for the last decade and more, Joe Paterno carried on in the presence of evil – and he did nothing. He knew. He knew as far back as 1998. And for the last 5,000 days, he has gone to sleep each night with this knowledge. Since Jerry Sandusky “retired” in 1999, in the wake of allegations of improper conduct with an underage boy inside Penn State’s football facilities, Joe Paterno won 102 more football games. That was 12 years ago.

Maybe he tried to forget about it. Didn’t ask questions he didn’t want answers to… Three years later, he was reminded. In 2002, a graduate assistant caught Sandusky, again inside of Paterno’s lair. He brought it to the legend. This time Paterno did the bare minimum. He reported it to his superior (wait, since when did Paterno have a superior in Happy Valley?) He legally covered his legendary ass, and he never followed up. Out of sight, out of mind yet again. Back to winning football games. Nine more years passed. How many more abuses happened in this time?

I realize this is supposed to be a site devoted to swimming. I realize the last thing our sport wants is for any connection to be made to this story. A story that is fast becoming the worst scandal in the history of sport… But like it or not, the swimming community can relate. We have been hit hard by this evilest of all human behavior. Perhaps there has never been a monster so evil in the coaching ranks of any sport, but there have been monsters of Sandusky’s type in swimming. A year and a half ago, in April 2010, ABC’s 20/20 aired that awful piece about coaching predators on pool decks. Reading with rage the horrors coming out of Happy Valley, it’s impossible not to recall swimming’s own brush with this same evil.

When we’re confronted with this, we don’t react rationally. It’s impossible. Yesterday while walking my dog, I found myself entertaining violent fantasies of torture that I hoped would be inflicted on Jerry Sandusky. The darkest corners of my imagination lashing out, unable to process unfathomable actions… I don’t think I am alone in having these thoughts.

We can feel comfort, or at least certainty, in our murderous rage in the presence of pure evil. But what about the enablers, the ones who stood by and let it happen by choosing to look the other way? Whether conscious or buried deep within the sub, their choice to do nothing amounts to blood on the hands. They were driving the getaway car. And those in the driver’s seat also get tried for murder.

How to process Joe Paterno’s role in this? How to process the role of those in swimming who might have been able to do something to prevent past horrors, but failed to do so… Parents, assistant coaches, administrators, who heard things, suspected, even saw things but did not reach for whistles. We know background checks are sometimes no more than futile attempts to distance ourselves from future guilt, like checking a waiver. Jerry Sandusky would have passed a background check. We also know that you can never predict these things, it will always be a sickening blindside. Yet, on that dark day when it arrives at your doorstep, what do you do?

Coaches, as a proud tribe, are selfless men and women with a passion to share their sport. Whether at the side of a field or a pool, this is a part of the job description, the core part. If you’re ranking careers based on lives changed and differences made, coaching must surely be ranked among the very highest of professions. It is also a job that can attract the very worst. The sort of men who prey on those they’re charged with protecting. The sort who deserve a circle of Hell lower than Dante’s 9th circle of traitors.

At Penn State, there may have been many of these good and selfless men in the athletic department. Maybe there was just one whose evil, hiding in plain sight, was allowed to spread and triumph. But they allowed him to remain in their midst. They let it happen. Where does that rank them on the Great Scorecard?

I don’t think Joe Paterno is a bad man. Six decades worth of good works as a coach must count for something. Yet here is how Joe Paterno will be remembered. Not for his 409 victories on the football field. Not for his “Grand Experiment” that actually took the academics of his student-athletes seriously. Not for his (prematurely) crowned sainthood in the state of Pennsylvania. Joe Paterno will now be remembered forever as this above all else: An enabler of a pedophile. Nothing more. That is now his legacy.

The rest has receded, faster than creation, into the footnotes of a legendary life.