Former Bears coach Mike Ditka has long struck me as an arrogant jerk. Last night in an interview with Action News, he confirmed my hunch. Reporter Walter Perez caught up with a few football notables at the Otho Davis Scholarship Foundation gala in Society Hill and asked them about the Penn State scandal. He wanted to know what these men thought about football coach Joe Paterno, and the growing chorus of demands for his resignation in light of the charges against his old pal Jerry Sandusky, who’s been charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse. Ditka didn’t mince words.
“I think it’s very unfair, but that’s the media,” said Ditka, who’s currently an analyst for ESPN. “He did what he was supposed to do and unfortunately, great people get dragged down when stupid people do bad things.”
That’s right, coach. There’s a lot of blame to go around in Happy Valley these days, so why not spread a little bit to the media? We all know the real story here. It was the press that, according to the grand jury report, witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a child in the showers at the football facility. And it was the media who decided to report that information to school officials and then let it go. No calls to the police. No follow-up when Sandusky was given an office in the same building—where he was reportedly seen working out just last week.
I guess Ditka was too busy rehearsing his blowhard commentator routine to catch these comments by Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan, who said that in his three decades of experience with the FBI and the attorney general’s office, he’s never seen anything like the Penn State case. “I think you have the moral responsibility,” Noonan said. “Anyone—not whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building—I think you have a moral responsibility to call us.”
The contrast between Ditka and Noonan’s comments illustrates the stark difference between doing what’s legally required of you and doing what’s right. Given Ditka’s history of shooting off his mouth, his position on the subject wasn’t surprising. It was the words of beloved former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil that caught me off guard. As he told Action News, “I don’t think there’s anything that could discolor the quality of Joe Paterno’s legacy.”
Vermeil is widely considered one of the nicest guys in all of sports, especially in football. I love his crying jags and inspirational speeches. He’s an icon, much like Paterno has been to generations of Penn Staters. But as we’ve learned this week, sometimes our heroes let us down. It’s one thing to say that Paterno’s record as a coach stands on its own. It’s another to suggest that he won’t be tarnished by the way he handled what he was told regarding Sandusky’s deviant behavior. Anyone who’s read the grand jury presentment and Paterno’s statement that followed knows something doesn’t smell right here. If Paterno’s then-graduate-assistant Mike McQueary didn’t explain the details of what he saw in that shower, why didn’t Paterno ask? Why didn’t Paterno follow up with McQueary or school officials after Sandusky was banned from bringing children onto campus? Why didn’t any of them call the cops? And why does Paterno feel “fooled” about Sandusky’s predatory nature after what he was told by McQueary, the same guy he’d later promote as his assistant coach?
Before the Ditka and Vermeil interviews on the news last night, there was footage of a crowd of Penn State students at Paterno’s home, chanting his name, singing and locking arms to show their love. Their support is understandable. State College is an insular family and their father figure, Joe the Paternal, is under attack. They’re also kids. Ditka is an adult, and should know when to shut up and stop talking to the media he loathes so much (and is employed by) until he understands the facts, though he’d surely never let those get in the way of a good vein-popping rant. As for the eternal optimists like Vermeil, they need to read the grand jury report, listen to folks like Noonan, and save their tears, not for Paterno’s legacy, but for Sandusky’s victims, and those who JoePa may have saved with a simple phone call to the police.