Adios Joe Paterno

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

–       Edmund Burke

 

When a hot topic arises that I feel compelled to address in this forum I try to do so in a timely manner. However, there are occasions when it takes a bit for my thoughts to gel together. I have learned to go with the flow rather than go off half-cocked and let emotion get the best of my senses…atleast most of the time.

 

As a kid growing up in northcentral West Virginia and a WVU Mountaineer fan, I always hated Penn State. The Nittany Lions were among the nation’s elite college football programs and one of West Virginia’s biggest rivals. Unfortunately it was pretty one sided, with the Mountaineers only winning 2 games against their foes in my lifetime. A 1984 upset victory broke a 25 year WVU losing streak in the rivalry and is still considered one of the most memorable moments in Old Gold & Blue history.

 

The annual matchup came to an end after 1992 because Penn St. joined the Big Ten, and over time my stance softened. Coach Joe Paterno became an elder statesman, the kind of old guy that one tends to root for because it’d be nice to see him “go out on top”. I’m a sucker for those kind of stories, like when John Elway won the Super Bowl and was named MVP in his last game or when Ted Williams hit a home run in his final at bat (although that happened before I was born). Alas, such a storybook ending was not in store for college football’s all-time winningest coach. Not by a long shot.

 

Several weeks ago a firestorm erupted when former long-time Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested for allegedly molesting atleast 9 young boys dating back as far as 1994. That is bad enough and Sandusky will have his day in court eventually, but the issue was complicated by implications that Paterno and other university officials had been alerted about Sandusky’s…activities…especially on one specific occasion in 2003. The story is that apparently Paterno was told by another assistant coach, reported the incident to his athletic director, and then took no further action. He did not call law enforcement, nor did he follow up with his bosses (the AD and school president). The accusation is that Joe Paterno…the most powerful chief in his little kingdom…did the bare minimum then went on his merry way without really confronting the issue, choosing instead to bury his head in the sand in a misguided effort to protect the reputation of his school and his football program.

 

Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden once advised to “be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Taking that up several notches, 1 Chronicles 28:9 says “The Lord searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts.” No one knows what really went through Joe Paterno’s head or heart except God, and that must sorted out between the two of them. However, Paterno has had to deal with this pesky little thing we call the court of public opinion, and it’s a battle that he seems to have lost handily. One of my Undeniable Truths of Life is that perception is reality and reality is perception, and the perception is that Coach Paterno chose the heretofore untainted reputation of his football team ahead of the safety of children, and that has angered a lot of people.

 

Two things need to be noted at this point. First of all, one of the reasons my dislike of Penn State football dissipated as I matured was the general belief, held by most fans, that Paterno and Penn St. were one of the few programs that were aboveboard and unblemished. In a world beset by cheating scandals of all shapes & sizes over the last few decades they seemed beyond reproach and were highly respected for conducting business the right way & not forgetting that the student athletes were in school primarily for an education. Joe Paterno’s graduation rates usually hovered around 90%, which is remarkable and certainly among the best in his profession. Over the course of his 46 years he was known to have given back to the school & the community in the form of millions of dollars in donations that had far reaching benefits. Even their plain blue uniforms with the unadorned white helmets conveyed a sense of cleanliness & purity. Secondly, as rabid as many sports fans…including yours truly…can be, most of us have a sense of perspective. We realize that there are many many things in life far more important than the outcome of a game.

 

Taking these two things into consideration, it is not surprising that the situation at Penn State took an ugly turn very quickly. For one of the “cleanest” programs in college football to be plagued by a scandal is shocking enough. For that scandal to involve repeated sexual assault of children is unspeakably horrifying. Joe Paterno and his sterling reputation would likely have survived some recruiting violations or other relatively benign indiscretions that aren’t uncommon in big time collegiate athletics, but to seemingly ignore sexual abuse of young boys was just too big of a transgression to overlook. Paterno’s legendary career came to an abrupt end when he was fired, a conclusion that no one in their wildest dreams could have ever foreseen just a few months ago.

 

Sure, there have been many that have been calling for an end to the Paterno era for several years. He was old, out of touch, just a figurehead. But even though the Nittany Lions haven’t really been in the national title hunt for most of the past 15 years they were, for the most part, still very successful and won a lot of games. That fact combined with Paterno’s legendary status, his record of community service & involvement, and the unsoiled status of the program made him virtually unchallengeable. But there was no way that he could survive the battering that he & the institution he served so faithfully for over a half century have taken in the past several weeks.

 

I think it is vitally important to make a clear distinction between Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. No one is defending Sandusky or feeling any kind of sympathy for his plight. Though under the outstanding American legal system he is technically innocent until proven guilty there seems to be enough smoke to indicate that there was indeed fire, and if he did commit the acts for which he is accused to say that he is a vile, revolting, sinful, sick & twisted dirtbag would be a huge understatement. The general attitude toward Paterno is much more ambiguous and diverse. Few are denying that he made a huge error in judgment, but just how sinister that mistake was and how harshly he should be scorned is a spirited topic of debate.

 

There is little argument that the Board of Trustees made the right decision by dismissing Paterno. They were put in a very difficult position and did the only thing that made any sense for the long term good of the school, the town, and the victims of the alleged crimes. However, it is also a fact that Joe Paterno is not being accused of doing anything illegal and that when the situation was reported to him he did tell his immediate superior. It’s not that he did nothing, it’s that the general consensus is that he did not do enough under the considerably serious circumstances.

 

There is a part of me that feels very sad for Coach Paterno. In contrast to my fondness for heartwarming stories in which people retire at the height of their glory, his fall from grace has been so rapid and so precipitous that it is hard to really wrap one’s head around the epic descent. Complicating matters is the fact that the man is 85 years old. There will be no comeback, no opportunity for absolution, and that is disheartening because we all love a good redemption story. However, with the aforementioned proper perspective we should all realize that Joe Paterno, Penn State University, and the Nittany Lion football team are largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. The fact is that 9 or more young boys were violated in a way that will have an ineradicable impact on their lives. No legal outcome, no amount of money, no public apologies, no job dismissals will ever erase that. My prayer is that those young men have and will continue to find a way to move forward, seek happiness, and not let what one disgusting pervert did to them ruin their lives. In due time I am sure society will find a balance between the success Joe Paterno had & the good things he did versus the mistakes he made & the negative way his legacy has been permanently tarnished, and that’s about as much as can be expected.

 

 

 

 

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