Remembering Joe Paterno

This image is of a statue of Joe Paterno

Any reporter will tell you if you're looking for a satisfying answer from Joe Paterno you're in for a long day. Joe always believed if you took care of the simple things in life everything else would eventually fall into place. If a reporter asked him at half time, trailing their opponent, what he thought his Penn State Nittany Lions needed to do to get back in the game he'd likely answer something simple in his high pitched voice like. "We need to get in the end zone" as he jogged off the field. So if you're frustrated that Joe left this world without giving us a satisfying answer to his actions in the Sandusky child molestation scandal, then you obviously aren't familiar with Joe Paterno. There will always be a debate between those who blindly love him and those who cannot see past his involvement in the scandal that rocked Penn State in November 2011. While theories abound about how involved Joe truly was, the facts are that he did something but he should have done more.

As someone who has witnessed a rape myself I have a rare insight to how people tend to behave when confronted with the unthinkable. In my case I witnessed a date rape going on at a party. I managed to convince everyone that the police had just pulled up and that was enough to stop the rape as everyone scattered towards the back door of my friend's house. I was under 18 and feared actually calling the police because I had been drinking. The victim left with her girlfriends and I left with my friend Jay. A long sobering walk led me to the victim's parents' door step. When I told them that I saw their son's best friend date raping their intoxicated daughter they had a multitude of reactions. Shock, confusion, anger, sadness and thankfulness for what I had done. But did they call the police? No... but her brother did punch his friend out the next day. A couple of weeks went by and what happened next would baffle me for years to come. The girl who was raped was now dating her rapist and her brother was back to being friends with him. Her parents seemed to accept it. The relationship of course only lasted long enough for the rapist to feel the heat was off him. Then as the years went by I began to see this pattern of denial in many cases of rape and abuse. For some reason it seems many of us are programmed to turn away from such unthinkable crimes especially when they involve people we know well. 

This neither defends nor condemns the actions of the witnesses involved in the Penn State scandal but simply might explain it somewhat. This same example of denial is clearly seen as well in the case of the Bernie Fine scandal in which Head Coach Jim Bohiem scolds Fine's accusers and only after being confronted with undeniable proof accepts Fine's guilt. ESPN as well were in denial when in 2003 they were given a copy of the infamous phone call recording of Fine's victim and Fine's wife revealing his crimes. ESPN chose to not publish the tape and instead sat on it for 8 years. In Joe Paterno's case the evidence implies that he had a much watered down version of what assistant Mike McQueary witnessed and told him. McQueary's denial already starting the chain of inaction. Paterno clearly seems to feel unable to handle such a disturbing revelation and doesn't push McQueary for more information. The 85 year old coach appears to fall back on his standard procedure training and decides to put this in the hands of his superiors.

Now this is where people tend to differ in opinion. Does Paterno simply trust that his bosses will do the right thing or is he handing it over to his cover up team? Paterno's history seems to imply the former while the history of the NCAA seems to imply the latter. Paterno was contractually obligated to report this incident to his superiors. This explains him not calling the police along with the fact that one of his superiors oversaw the Penn State Campus Police Dept. The real question is why he didn't follow up and it seems even Paterno regrets this. It is this that Paterno refers to when he says "In hindsight I wish I'd done more". His willingness to believe that Sandusky must be innocent since his superiors found him innocent is at the core of what Paterno calls his "Greatest tragedy". Yet it is obvious even Paterno believes he made a grave mistake in judgment.

But is a man only as good as his last or worst deed?

The sad truth is the closer you look at your heroes the more they show their moments of cowardice and the closer you look at saints the more you see their sins. What if I were to tell you that historians have claimed Gandhi was racist against black people or that Ben Franklin abandoned his wife and kids for the French party life. Thomas Jefferson who wrote "All men are created equal" owned slaves and impregnated at least one. Mother Teresa accepted money from cruel dictators and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a habit of cheating on his wife whenever he was on the road. Yet without that racist Gandhi our adulterous Martin Luther King Jr. may have never become the icon of equal rights that he is and without MLK there may not have been a black President in this time. These are people who are icons and leaders but they are human and imperfect. They did things that totally contradicted what they stood for and those actions often hurt people. But they also did a great amount of good for mankind. The Spartans are often portrayed as ancient heroes but they were also a race of pedophiles. Which brings us back to the Sandusky scandal and how Penn State and Paterno's legacy can survive it. As hard as it is to believe that something so appalling can be remembered as just a blip in the Penn State timeline, history shows it's possible. The alumni will tell you the good far outweighs the bad while critics will tell you no amount of good can overcome such a horrible act. Common sense tells us the answer is somewhere in between. Unfortunately things no longer play out naturally. History is more and more becoming an illusion twisted by politics and prejudices to say what people want it to say and it's being written by these influences every day on ESPN and Sports Illustrated, Fox and CNN, Deadspin and TMZ, YouTube and Twitter.

You ask me what will become of all this? What will become of Paterno's legacy?

The answer lies in the public. It's whatever you want it to be.

In typical JoePa fashion he looked for the silver lining even in the midst of the scandal: "I'm happy in one sense that we called attention, throughout this state, and throughout the country probably, that this is going on," referring to the attention to child abuse the scandal has brought. "It's kind of been like a hidden thing. So maybe that's good."

Paterno died a man, imperfect but cherished by his family, friends and fans. His beloved Penn State will move on a far greater school than what it was before he arrived and his players all credit him as a guiding light in their lives. To him that was the only legacy that mattered.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons