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Legal Worries for Paterno Don’t End After Firing

Joe Paterno is done at Penn State but his legal troubles are only beginning, and he knows it. That’s why he contacted a high-powered criminal defense lawyer this week.

J. Sedgwick Sollers, who once represented President George H.W. Bush in the Iran-Contra affair, was contacted by Paterno’s advisers on Thursday. But Sollers has not yet met with Paterno, and a formal retainer agreement has not been signed.

He will need high-powered help. You cannot read the grand jury report, in companion with this story about Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant who witnessed Jerry Sandusky anally raping a child, and conclude anything other than the fact that Paterno lied to the grand jury. The grand jury punted on this, charging AD Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz with perjury but not Paterno. But this is pretty clear. Paterno says that McQueary, after witnessing the rape, told him only about “horsing around” or “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature.” But McQueary reportedly disagrees:

He has said under oath that he saw Sandusky raping what appeared to be a 10-year-old boy. He immediately left, met with his father and determined he would report the incident to Paterno, according to prosecutors. A person familiar with his account said McQueary did not spare the details when he met with Paterno. Nor did he when he met with the university’s athletic director and another senior administrator, the man in charge of Penn State’s campus police.

That just looks pretty clearly like perjury to me. But it gets worse. I don’t know what to make of the rumor from Mark Madden that Sandusky was pimping out the boys in his Second Mile Foundation to rich donors. But Madden, who was all over this story seven months ago, makes the only logical case, given the facts: that Sandusky was told to retire in 1999 in exchange for a cover-up of his crimes, which were found out prior to that:

Allegations of improper conduct with an underage male first surfaced in 1998, while Sandusky was still employed by Penn State. That incident allegedly occurred in a shower at Penn State’s on-campus football facility. No charges were filed.

Sandusky retired the next year, in 1999. He was 55, prime age for a coach. Odd, to say the least – especially with Joe Paterno thought even then to be ready to quit and Sandusky a likely, openly-discussed successor […]

Did Penn State not make an issue of Sandusky’s alleged behavior in 1998 in exchange for him walking away from the program at an age premature for most coaches? Did Penn State’s considerable influence help get Sandusky off the hook?

And then there are the civil suits from every single victim after 1998, when Paterno was first made aware, in all likelihood, of the allegations. And the investigations into any coverup. The legal wrangling could take years.

What’s more, this extends beyond Penn State. It makes no sense that a star defensive coordinator, one of the best in the nation, would never again be contacted for a job by another school. The likelihood is high that this was an open secret throughout college football, or at least that people in the know told any colleges looking into inquiring about Sandusky to back off.

If and when all of this comes out, Penn State will obviously be shaken to the very foundation. The Education Department is investigating, the result of which under the Cleary Act could lead to the loss of federal student aid for the school. Riots would be the least of PSU’s worries.

But the institution of big-time college athletics, which has been tarnished considerably in recent years, could also be implicated. And perhaps ALL youth athletics. The Penn State sex abuse scandal only brings to light a troubling series of incidents described by Michele Weldon:

Were this an isolated incident, I could perhaps contain my agitation.

In late October, a Texas youth football coach in Abilene was arrested on charges of sexual assault with a child and two counts of indecency with a child. This past summer, a Rhode Island youth football coach was arrested on sexual assault and child molestation charges. A few weeks after that, an Omaha, Neb., youth football league organizer was arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting a girl. A youth soccer coach from a south suburb of Chicago was charged with sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy and possession of child pornography. A Virginia youth basketball coach was charged with first-degree statutory sex.

Similarly, coaches for basketball, cheerleading and softball from Illinois, Florida and Nevada have been charged in the past few years with sexual molestation.

There’s a deep undercurrent here that people don’t really want to talk about. But it’s there. The lives of children are entrusted to the all-American tradition of athletics, and the controls on keeping predators out of that tradition are obviously lax.

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David Dayen

David Dayen