Subscribe to the Newsletter

What Camp Counselors Know: Joe Paterno's Shameful Legacy

After reading Sports Illustrated's articles on the death of Joe Paterno - a repetitive, pedestrian description of his life, career, iconic status, and the final shame of having unspeakable acts committed against young boys occurring just steps away from his office - like most people I'm ready to read about something else. Of course, I'll be interested to find out the result of the prosecution of the monster who apparently committed the crimes, but other than that, I'm done with it.

Well, not completely. There are numbers of us who have worked with young people as teachers, coaches, mentors, supervisors, and in other positions. For 15 years I directed a resident summer camp, a place that too often can be a magnet for child predators. I've also spent an additional 22 years as a teacher and coach.

My wife and I stepped out of the camping business more than seven years ago, but the Penn State situation leaves us wondering what the people in Happy Valley were thinking. There wasn't a camping conference in the '80s and '90s that didn't include workshops and panels about child predators - how to detect them, how to interview job applicants, what to do if kids are molested under one's watch. It was grim stuff, and we all took it seriously.

Our approach - which wasn't dissimilar from many other programs - was to educate our staff during orientation week before the campers arrived. Since we had a healthy staff return rate, many of our counselors heard our message multiple times. The fact that someone had already sat through these sessions in the past in no way excused him or her from hearing the message again. In fact, we often had some of our returnees help lead these discussions.

What was the message? To begin with child abuse was/is something that wasn't unfamiliar to our population. For instance, a 12-year-old boy more likely than not had never been abused, but he certainly may have had a friend or a student at his school who was a victim. Or he had read about abuse in the newspaper or surely seen something on television. While these crimes may have been whispered about - or ignored - in the 1950s, by the time children were being victimized at Penn State, any responsible adult working with kids should have known how to respond.

We schooled our staff in ways to protect oneself from accusations of abuse. We emphasized that kids knew what abuse was, that sometimes kids imagine things, and that children occasionally might even accuse a counselor of abuse as a tool to get back at him for some real or imagined wrong.

So, to illustrate, if a staff member were to enter a shower room where one or two kids were present, he (the counselor) should pull a U-turn, either saying nothing, or claiming he forgot something back at the cabin. Under no circumstance should a staff member be showering with one or two kids. Was Penn State listening?

Summer camp is a place where loads of kids become homesick or upset by something as trivial as flunking a swim test. It is not unusual for a youngster to be found alone in the cabin, on his bunk, teary-eyed and/or crying. By all means, the counselor needs to be supportive, providing encouragement and a positive attitude. But not alone in the cabin. Lead the kid to a bench where they can be seen by passersby. Take a walk around the property in full view of others. Make camp a place where it's okay to show emotion in public.

These are just a few examples of the background and information we provided. We also covered what to do if a staff member suspected that a child had been abused or how to respond if one believed that a fellow staff member was abusing children.

And we made it clear that the local laws required us to report to the police any instance - suspected or corroborated - of child abuse.

We made it our business to contact the authorities in our county government as a matter of course. We went to lunch to introduce ourselves and our camp. We described our practices and asked for advice and/or additions.

Did we ever need help? On one occasion, we had a staff member who clearly was grooming campers, touching them where they didn't want to be touched, and generally scaring the crap out of at least two of them. The kids were brave, savvy and informed, and they reported the guy before he fulfilled his cruelest fantasies. Within a hour or two, the local police were informed, and the staff member, who claimed that he was simply a "physical person," was gone for good.

Because the parents of the campers did not want their kids to testify in court, no charges ever were brought. But two detectives did interview the campers.

Lest one thinks that I'm about to dislocate a shoulder from patting myself on the back, I'll say that anyone with a genuine concern for the welfare of children would act swiftly and appropriately to protect them. And there are millions of people who do exactly that. It's not rocket science, and it doesn't take excessive amounts of courage. You simply want to make sure that our children are safe.

Getting back to Penn State, after two losing seasons in 2003-04 fans questioned whether the game had passed by Joe Paterno. He proved them wrong by bouncing back for 11-win seasons in 2008 and 2009, and his team was 8-1 when he was fired last fall.

But maybe the times passed him by ten or 20 years ago. Was he not horrified, angered, and outraged about the actions of his assistant coach? As far as I know, no one reported that Paterno even confronted the man to voice his betrayal and disgust. I suspect there are more than a few football coaches - to say nothing of people outside the sports arena - who would be inclined to become violent with this fool. That is, after making sure that the police knew every gory detail.

Could it be that Paterno was still living in the '50s, thinking that this would all go away if he and Penn State just kept things quiet and maintained a low profile, concentrating on and celebrating Nittany Lions football?

Somewhere in the newspaper or on the Internet, I saw a survey of almost 30,000 people where 84 percent thought that Paterno's legacy would be positive. If we kept score for these kinds of things, Joe's positive influence on thousands of his players (and other students at PSU) would far surpass the number of lives ruined by his degenerate assistant coach. Tell that to the kid who was raped in the shower.


Comments welcome.


The following comments were delivered to Roger Wallenstein via his personal e-mail account:

1. This is a wonderfully written piece which I've forwarded to a couple of people I know who think JoePa should only be remembered for his accomplishments in winning football games.

2. This came from a retired teacher: You said what I and I'm sure others thought but media has not said. I do keep thinking about the messages our silence sends to kids.

3. Paterno promoted State College as an isolated, safe, controlled bastion where his players could achieve as both athletes and scholars: Unusual and laudable. My sense is that Paterno's influence at the institution (both as a coach and major donor) and his zeal to protect the image he built in "Happy Valley" overshadowed what he knew such an allegation would do to his program.

4. The old white men network is still very much involved in controlling the message.

5. Another retired teacher: I remember teaching in a boarding school in the early- to mid-seventies, when very little was said explicitly to discourage sexual relations between faculty and students. There was a blanket statement that faculty would be fired if such conduct were discovered, but I know there were favorite teachers and students with wealthy parents who were left alone as long as they were discreet. That some of the relationships were technically consensual should not have been an excuse. And I have no way of knowing how many students were coerced into relationships that they didn't want. The moral lines were all too often blurred. I'm glad to see that there is now a lot more attention paid to such matters, at least in some institutions. Thank you for this post.

6. From a law professor who served his university as its NCAA rep: Like a lot of head coaches his age and tenure I think he may have been out of touch with the real world outside of football. If he would have called you instead of the administrators it would have been a different scenario altogether. Looking back on it I am sure he felt sick to his stomach about how he handled it. But these coaches do not act like you and me, and he was one of most honest ones around.

My thought from day one was that the media had a field day with this whole sordid affair. My initial reaction was that the media should step back and let the legal system handle the matter. Everyone, even Sandusky, is innocent until proven guilty. If you start making exceptions to the rule of law, then you and I may be next to get our constitutional rights stripped.

Reacting to the media coverage, the Chairman of PSU Board fired Paterno with no hearing or chance to meet in person with the Board. If he would have lived that long, the guy would have resigned on his own this spring.

As you state in your article, the matter will be fleshed out in the courts and from the Paterno family's perspective, it would have been excruciating if JoPa would have been around to be deposed in a civil case or called to testify in the criminal case. A good lawyer would've made mince meat of the man.

Your last line really hit home. Franco [Harris] and all of the former players are quick to come to his aid, but I would like to see how any of them would react if it was their kid in the shower. I am just not sure Paterno understood the situation at the time and he got no help from the people to whom he apparently reported the incident. It is hard to judge someone unless you have been in their shoes at the time.

7. I really cannot understand the fascination with Paterno, the mantle they refuse to let him down from, it is pathetic. This guy knew about Sandusky and his issues with little boys for 25 years at a minimum, and he did almost nothing, literally nothing. My guess is many coaches knew this guy was a predator, which is why he never got another coaching gig after being the #2 guy at the best program in the country for 25 years. I am 110% sure many other people knew all about this, there is no question, you do not become a sexual predator at age 55.

The entire group of white-male idiots is pathetic. It is a shame all of these folks get up and say Paterno was done wrong in the end, he didn't deserve this treatment, the University should have been nicer, ugh, it all makes me want to puke.

We have an employee (24 years old) who went to Happy Valley and I asked him how he felt. Now this employee is about as Pennsylvania puritan as it gets. Soft-spoken, god fearing, family kid, grew up on a farm, and I have never heard him say anything bad about anyone or thing. So I asked him how he felt about the entire situation. This young man is not a sports fan, and admittedly went to only a few Nittany Lions games during his four years at Penn St. What was his take, and I am summarizing here, "I just feel bad for Jo-Pa, this wasn't his fault, and you feel bad that they just fired him and all that. Otherwise it is hard to believe,and I feel bad for those kids." 

I was stunned to be honest. Here is a super good kid, quiet, shy, goes to Church, and the only thing he really wishes to say about the travesty that occurred at his alma mater was that he felt a bit bad for the guy who let it happen not getting a proper send off . . . and this kid doesn't even like football!

It's nuts. I guess I should feel bad for all the priests who got caught molesting children in church, because they did not get to finish out their life commitment to God . . . wow, hard to relate.

8. All this hero worship is kinda shocking to me. But then again, I ain't a sports guy.

9. It is beyond belief that Paterno has been so lionized, and that the instances of child abuse have been, by many, trivialized.

10. Really good stuff from someone who should know. We all were aghast with JoePa's ignorance (as told to Sally Jenkins just before his death) of child sex abuse. He really was out of touch with reality.

11. Of course, you're right - these things are not rocket science. They are common sense. And if you don't have common sense, they are the law, and that should spare people like Joe Paterno the effort of using their common sense.

12. Does this ever hit the nail on the head! The thing that strikes me is that you guys were more interested in the welfare of the kids in your charge rather than the welfare of the institution you had set up. And, of course, since you cared more about the kids, your camp became the respected institution that you hoped it would be.

13. Many well-wishers to Coach Pa seem to forget the most important aspect of this tragedy are the victims. [Phil] Knight's remarks were well-intended, but sadly he glossed over accountability. "Not on my watch" is multi-faceted and the Coach fell short of his responsibility when he did not call the police and confront/suspend Sandusky.

14. So well said, Roger, and so much needed. Football holds way too much sway over American culture, appeals to the lowest sensibilities (excepting my 84-year-old ex-nun, rampant Packers fan cousin). More baseball, I say.

15. These incidents of molestation or outright sexual assault go unheeded so there's always other stories that come to light about past transgressions that the authorities did not take seriously and act upon. Now we're reading about an elementary school teacher who was binding and gagging his 10- and 11-year-old students and feeding them his semen. UGH. And, yet, in today's LA Times it's reported that he was the target of police investigation 18 years ago.

Kids are so embarrassed and intimidated by the actions of people they're taught to respect and trust that it's no wonder they don't come forward, and oftentimes their own parents dismiss the incident as the product of an overactive imagination or misinterpretation. 

Will the Joe Paterno story and even worse, the actions of the assistant who witnessed the rape change what goes on in institutions that serve our children? Has the outcry about abusive priests made significant changes in the Catholic Church? Considering our position as a first world country, the United States ranks lower than many other countries in how we treat our children. I don't feel we are as child-friendly as we like to think we are. I'd like to see more large companies provide day care for working mothers. And changing facilities for mothers with infants. And what about the cutbacks in education? We are so far behind many countries . . . 25th or 28th on the list in math and science. And who will be able to afford higher education the way tuition increases are going. Even the University of California schools . . . a public institution are becoming out of reach.

16. Fucking hell Roger, this is a great read. Interesting to understand what sort of training a reasonable organization goes through to educate its employees about pedophilia. What is striking is how wildly inappropriate and egregious the situation at PSU was, particularly with all the information and training one could assume they had at their avail. You really drive the point home with the last sentence. Powerful stuff. This situation makes me really angry; reading this piece was cathartic.

17. I feel exactly as you do. I couldn't believe the excessive mourning and adulations that occurred at Joe Paterno's death. Whatever good things he accomplished for football at Penn State were certainly negated in my mind by his turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse going on under his watch. There was NO excuse for his not following through on an investigation of Sandusky.

More from Beachwood Sports »

I've Had It

I couldn't care less whether there's a 2020 baseball season. There, I've said it.

Continue reading "I've Had It" »

Posted on May 30, 2020

The Beachwood Radio Sports Hour #306: Baseball Is Blowing It

Billionaire owners cry poor. Plus: Our Hearts Ache For Minneapolis; Illinois Provides Week's Top Sports Story; Last Dance Remnants; The Blackhawks Just Undeservedly Made The Playoffs; Kaner & The Breadman; Reopening Sports; Remembering Biff Pocaroba!; Thibs Lives!; Biggs's Bag; and Chicago-Based Wilson Gets Back The NBA's Official Game Ball.

Continue reading "The Beachwood Radio Sports Hour #306: Baseball Is Blowing It" »

Posted on May 29, 2020