— The voicemail was left by a buddy from his playing days back at Brown University.
“He made a reference to the Sandusky thing,” Matt Paknis says. “I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it sounded weird.”
The Sandusky thing. By now, America knows it all too well. The Sandusky thing is the indictment of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on 40 counts of sexual abuse against eight children, an indictment that already has led to the ousters of university president Graham Spanier and legendary coach Joe Paterno, even though neither has been charged with a crime; to the indefinite leave imposed upon assistant coach and potential star witness Mike McQueary; and to unrest among students on the school's campus.
Sandusky has pleaded innocent to the charges. Paterno released a statement over the weekend, through his son Jay, that he would not have further comment on the situation.
When Paknis, 49, started investigating the Sandusky thing on the Internet, it hit especially close to home.
In two ways: He is a childhood victim of sexual abuse, and a former assistant coach at Penn State, working on the same staff as Sandusky under Paterno.
“I was up until 2 in the morning, getting more and more enraged,” says Paknis, a Massachusetts resident. “But, on the other hand, it made some sense to me.”
Paknis is a management and leadership consultant for high-end companies and enterprises, and his unique perspective has inspired him to speak out not only about sexual abuse but also about the abuse and misuse of power at the highest levels of the university and athletic program, which he blames for allowing an abuser to freely operate.
He has done so on a blog entitled “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.”
“I’m just tired of all these little fiefdoms popping up everywhere, and people hiding in the back office, surrounded by all their henchmen, and doing the wrong things,” Paknis told NBCSports.com. “It’s got to stop. Someone has to step up. I can’t sit back. I’m doing this to help people.”
It should be made clear that Paknis did not witness any sexual abuse while at Penn State as a graduate assistant coach in 1987 and 1988, before leaving to pursue an MBA at the University of Rhode Island. He did, however, see some things that made him queasy, especially in light of his own background, and especially when it came to Sandusky.
“He was always grabbing the players,” Paknis says. “He would get in their space, lean up right against them. I’d also been taught you don’t touch anyone unless you are teaching a technique. Boundaries were clearly an issue. It made me feel awkward, the way he would grab or pinch them.”
That wasn’t all that made him uncomfortable during his short Penn State tenure, which followed a successful playing career on a three-time undefeated state championship high school team before starting at Brown.
Paknis found it “bizarre” that Penn State coaches all showered in the same space, behind a clear Plexiglas perimeter.
“They would talk about plays," he said. "I thought that was maybe old-school or something, so I mentioned that to coaches at other places, and they never did that. That was not for me.”
Paknis also was unnerved by some of his interaction with Sandusky, even though none of it was sexual in nature. They didn’t spend much time together, but they coached different sides of the ball. Still, Paknis recalls that Sandusky would tell him “that he hated Joe. He was never unpleasant to me, but I could not figure out where that was coming from, so I would back off. I didn’t want to get into it.”
That doesn’t mean Paknis was a fan of Paterno’s, either.
Penn State lockers were arranged alphabetically, so Paterno and Paknis were next to each other. In reality, however, they were worlds apart. Paterno had just won the national championship, and was the reigning "Sports Illustrated" Sportsman of the Year.
“I was youngest guy on the staff,” Paknis says. “I was the lowest man on the totem pole.”
At Penn State, he valued his classes, admired much of the staff, liked and respected many of the players.
Paknis didn’t think much of the Penn State power structure, or the man at the top, who “wouldn’t give you time of day unless you were on his level, or have any interaction with you without it serving him.” He saw a system that served as a “kingdom,” designed to serve a single person, without checks or balances. He saw a coach who had been able to produce a constructive output on the field, but “underneath, optimized fear.”
And he saw a community that bought so completely into the image that “he does things the right way,” that his way was rarely questioned.
“Joe is perceived to be a father figure or grandfather figure, and that’s a very hard thing for people to get to that realization, that your dad is bad,” Paknis says.
That’s why Paknis isn’t surprised that many former players have spoken out in sympathy toward Paterno since his firing last Wednesday, referencing all the good work he has done for the program and those who have gone through it: “Their whole image is locked into that. That is the way they define themselves. To let go of that, it’s very difficult.”
That’s also why Paknis isn’t surprised that many Penn State students have rallied to Paterno’s defense as well, even doing so with violence and vandalism:
“I think the students are confused," he says. "They had to act out. They were probably acting out in anger. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have acted that way, that I would have sat back and said, ‘Wow, if he’s getting removed, there’s got to be real substance here.’”
Paknis believes that Paterno followed “what was his MO for all those years,” and that “when it was time to step up and protect the kids, he protected himself.” He also believes that the truth is even worse than what has been reported.
“We know publicly now that he was aware of this when McQueary went to him,” Paknis says.
That, according to the grand jury indictment, was 2002, after McQueary allegedly saw Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State shower.
Paknis thinks Paterno knew something earlier even than 1999, when Sandusky resigned, one year after one boy — Victim 6 in the indictment — reported an incident to his mother, and it was investigated by university police and the district attorney.
That’s because Paknis came to this simple conclusion during his two years in Happy Valley, a conclusion that doesn’t change after Paterno aged well past the point of the average working person:
“Joe knows everything.”
Feeling personal pain
What Paterno can’t know is the pain that Paknis experienced as a child, the pain that makes these news events feel so personal.
“That’s what kept me up, because I got triggered,” Paknis says. “I figured I had most of my feelings had gone. But we all have a lot of compartments.”
He started cursing Sandusky, and anyone involved. He saw himself.
“He picked on kids who didn’t have a support structure,” Paknis says of Sandusky, who founded the Second Mile charity for at-risk kids only to allegedly prey upon them. “Kids who didn’t have the structure in place to make them feel whole and good.”
As a boy in Madison, N.J., Paknis experienced a family in crisis. His father was around, but preoccupied. His mother was dying of cancer.
A male neighbor took advantage, grooming him, then sexually abusing him.
Paknis was 11. He said nothing, knowing that his family respected the neighbor, and believing he wouldn’t be believed. His struggles in school suggested something was wrong, however, so his mother sent him to counseling. Paknis felt comfortable with the counselor and eventually shared his secret.
He never shared it with his mother, who died before he graduated high school. The abuse allegation never got escalated to the legal authorities. His abuser never got exposed, so the loop never got closed, though Paknis was able to confront, threaten and stop him after growing to nearly 200 pounds as an eighth-grader.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” Paknis said. “I pray he did not go on to prey on other people. I’m pretty sure he had other issues. I don’t think he lasted too long.”
Paknis persevered. He pushed forward. He tried to put it behind him.
But, after his mother passed, he started experiencing chronic sleep disruption. That went on for years until, finally, in 1996, after the birth of he and his wife’s second of three children, he decided he needed more help. Upon receiving it, and finding his "safe place," he started to feel more comfortable speaking out. In 1999, in response to a Sports Illustrated story about sexual abuse in youth sports, he wrote a letter to his hometown paper about the role sports played in "saving his life" after his own abuse.
Now, he's even ready to do some public speaking on his situation, and on behalf of those who aren't ready to speak up for themselves.
That’s one of the reasons Paknis has has been upset about the reaction of some at Penn State to this crisis, and their focus on Paterno as a victim rather than on the kids.
“It will not make it easier,” he says. “Not at all. If survivors are in there, they will just blame themselves more.”
He saves no sympathy for anyone but them.
Not for Sandusky.
Not for anyone in the Penn State power structure top to bottom, even if that means clearing out people Paknis liked, like Tom Bradley, who was promoted to head coach to replace Paterno.
“The first thing you’ve got to do is you’ve got to look at the situation honestly,” Paknis says. “Then you have to separate reality from distortions, or your opinions from facts. Someone has to go in there with a lot of credibility, and start putting the mirror up: This is really what was happening, and the behaviors that were really the result of those type of falsehoods and distortions. How do we bring the world back on that kind of axis, so our behaviors and actions are really reflecting the truth? What kind of checks and balances do we have to put in place so no one gets that type of power again? It’s just a culture. You’ve got to clear it. "
Paknis saves no sympathy for McQueary, who is on indefinite leave and reportedly has received threats. And who, Paknis notes, was promoted within a couple of years of his alleged report to Paterno rather than police.
“I hate to throw stones, because I wasn’t there,” Paknis says. “I would like to like think I would have controlled my rage enough not to kill Jerry. But I would have responded in a physical way, with my main objective to protect the young boy. Taken him to police, and left Jerry incapacitated.”
And certainly, he saves none for Paterno, whom he calls a “spin doctor” who believed too much of his own hype.
“It’s sort of an empty reaction,” Paknis says. “Almost like a pitiful reaction. I wish (his ouster) had happened 10 years ago when he first knew about it. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to be here. If it is true, I would have enjoyed seeing him receive a minor, tiny fraction of the pain that was felt by these kids. And that would be plenty. You can add all the infractions in the history of the NCAA, and it wouldn’t add up to the loss of all these boys’ souls.”