If true, what did Joe Paterno know?

The damage control began in earnest Sunday night. The lawyering. The spin. The sudden return to retirement; the midnight administrative leave. The Nixonian press release. Everyone "shocked." Everyone "deeply troubled."

If true, the staggering liability. If true, the panicked cover-up.

If true. "We were all fooled."

By the time you read this, Joe Paterno might have resigned. Or worse yet, not resigned. Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been indicted on scores of counts of felony sexual abuse of minor boys. Penn State officials have been indicted and charged with perjury. Read about it here and here and here and here.

If true? Another American tragedy. If true? Another abject failure of moral obligation. And if true, the story for as long as it lasts -- 24 more hours or the next hundred years -- will be a question: "What did Joe know, and when did Joe know it?"

In fairness then, the entirety of his statement:

"If true, the nature and amount of charges made are very shocking to me and all Penn Staters. While I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention, like anyone else involved I can't help but be deeply saddened these matters are alleged to have occurred.

"Sue and I have devoted our lives to helping young people reach their potential. The fact that someone we thought we knew might have harmed young people to this extent is deeply troubling. If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.

"As my grand jury testimony stated, I was informed in 2002 by an assistant coach that he had witnessed an incident in the shower of our locker room facility. It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report. Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky. As Coach Sandusky was retired from our coaching staff at that time, I referred the matter to university administrators.

"I understand that people are upset and angry, but let's be fair and let the legal process unfold. In the meantime I would ask all Penn Staters to continue to trust in what that name represents, continue to pursue their lives every day with high ideals and not let these events shake their beliefs nor who they are."

In other words -- If True -- I didn't know anything. Once informed of something, I did the minimum: I kicked it up the chain, looked away and chose never to think of it again.

If Paterno knew something and did nothing, he's an accessory. If he didn't know, he should have known. Such are the burdens of omniscience as understood by the cult of the Division I football coach.

If true, what did Joe know, and when did he know it?

The failure here is complete. Utter. The failure of the institution and the failure of the individual. The failure of the community. The failure of common decency.

If true? Your failure. My failure. We didn't keep our children safe.

What did Joe know, and when did Joe know it?

The truth is a horror story. If true.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.