Unraveling Penn State's Watergate

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Will Mike McQueary be playing the role of former President Richard Nixon’s counsel, John Dean, if and when the Penn State trial(s) start?

As information starts to emerge on how the Penn State defendants will likely argue their cases, I couldn’t help but think of the man who broke wide open the Watergate conspiracy in front of a national audience nearly 40 years ago. For it appears that McQueary – like Dean before him – was designated to be the man left to twist in the wind, the fall guy for the entire Joe Paterno administration.

But like Dean, McQueary’s words may be the deciding factor in implicating his former higher-ups in what looks to be a growing cover-up in the face of the revolting crimes allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky.

Ready to dissect and invalidate McQueary’s testimony is Paterno’s version of Nixon’s “Berlin Wall” of Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman - former athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, former vice president for finance and business.

It was reported last week that a letter from the lawyers for the defendants was sent to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office demanding evidence that any of the victims had come forth with such graphic descriptions of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, as described by McQueary. If such a victim “denies any sodomy, that is powerful exculpatory evidence. Indeed, it should be the end of the case against Messrs. Curley and Schultz. Please produce such information forthwith.”

So what this basically is stating is that unless one of these justifiably frightened and eternally scarred victims comes forward with such gruesome testimony regarding an act of rape, then McQueary’s words are discredited. Curley and Schultz – and Paterno – have said McQueary only alluded to inappropriate behavior, such as Sandusky showering with the boys or other inappropriate behavior.

While it may score some points on legal technicality (after all, the lawyers are just doing their job), this defense is still laughable. What it’s basically saying is that the knowledge of a man showering with boys didn’t set off any alarms in the offices of Curley and Schultz, or anywhere else in State College, for that matter – and that is apparently acceptable.

It bears repeating what Curley and Schultz are accused of: perjury and failure to report child abuse to authorities. I guess we’re set for another “what 'is' is” discussion, to reference another impeachment proceeding. Maybe it will go something along the lines of “showering or being naked with a boy and merely touching him gently in the showers without anal intercourse is not child abuse. It does not rise to the level of what (child abuse) is.”

In what may be the most grossly insensitive comments uttered thus far, Curley's attorney, Caroline Roberto of Pittsburgh, told a group of reporters that he is innocent and the charges are the equivalent of “getting a traffic ticket.” It appears that manifest arrogance is ceaseless with this crowd. 

There are further analogies between Watergate and Penn State, and they’re eerily felicitous.

Nixon had his Southern California mafia of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Ron Ziegler, Don Segretti and others. As for Paterno, he had his Nittany Mountain with Curley, Schultz and McQueary - they all grew up in Pennsylvania and went to Penn State and worshipped at the altar of Paterno.

Segretti once famously said to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, “What would you do if you were just getting out of the Army, if you had been away from the real world for four years, you didn't know what kind of law you wanted to practice, and you got a call to go to work for the president of the United States?” And for McQueary (along with Schultz and Curley), what an honor it must have been to be able to play and then work for his hero, Paterno, at such a young age.

The actual break-in at the Watergate headquarters was just the beginning and not the end, as the investigation exposed an entrenched, systematic pattern of illegal activities with the goal of disrupting the democratic process. And with Penn State, the charges against Sandusky represent only the start of an investigation that will likely reveal many more uncomfortable truths about Penn State, various school districts and possibly inaction by government officials.

Just in the last few weeks we’re hearing more and more about how iron-fisted Paterno’s reign was, how difficult it was to effect change at Penn State when faced with such an imposing force as King Joe. Stories are emerging that refute the claims that Penn State deserved its reputation as one of the nation’s cleanest athletic programs.

Vicky Triponey, who spent four years as vice president of student affairs at Penn State, detailed her difficulty in dealing with the impenetrable fortress of Paterno when attempting to investigate his players.

Tearing down sacred cows is central to the American experience. We were founded as an anti-monarchy, after all. So while it will pain many people to see such a formerly revered and old figure who is currently suffering from cancer be exposed to so much scorn, it is nevertheless important. Just as protecting the image of the presidency was less important than the truth 40 years ago.

A tangential discussion apart from the child abuse charges (which everyone obviously agrees are beyond the pale) that will take place regarding the cover-up and the corruption of Penn State’s athletic department will likely focus on the notion that “everybody does it ... so what?” Herein lies the harshest and most revealing aspect: Do we make sure this never happens again by instituting immediate and significant changes – both in how the sexual abuse of children is handled in a school environment and the way college sports operate – or do we treat it as an isolated incident and forget about it all once the trials end?

But the analogies between Penn State and Watergate go only so far. We’re talking about the possible rape of children here and an ensuing cover-up of these actions. These guys are worse than the Watergate crew.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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