With the release of Judge Freeh’s report today, confirming all of our worst fears about the Penn State Sex Scandal – I feel like my feelings about JoePa are more crystallized than ever. I wrote this a couple months ago, and feel even stronger about it now:
I don’t care that Joe Paterno is dead.
And, honestly -I’m not trying to come off as callous or vindictive. It’s just that… octogenarians die all the time. 409 Division I football victories and two national championships doesn’t change that fact. He had lung cancer, he was old – and he was just a man.
Maybe that’s what gets lost when writers, pundits, alumni, and fans start arguing over how you should remember him, and what’s fair to say now that he’s passed.
See, I’m in a unique demographic here – too young to have seen Joe Paterno and the Lions as in their prime, and too old to consider somebody “great” simply because it’s consensus.
For most of my adult life Joe had been “over the hill.” Which is the polite way to say “washed up.” His team was more or less run by assistants, and he wasn’t even wearing a headset during games. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it always seemed a little selfish to force everyone to call you the “Head Coach” when you were so clearly not in charge. None of that made him a bad person, it was simply the lens through which I – and I imagine many fans - viewed him.
We all know how many players he graduated, and how much he’s given to the school - in both donations and prestige. And you could set sail for days in the ocean of stories about the lives he’s touched. And they’re real! Ryan Jones, editor of The Penn Stater sat and told me a story about how, as a freshman, his first-ever face-to-face interview was JoePa - who took a full half-hour out of his day and set it aside for Jones.
And it continues on like that, people Joe had spoken with, people he’d done favors for, “He made sure my son graduated”, “he got me to the NFL”, “he helped me get my first job”, “he made me a man” - and on, and on. I don’t doubt a word of it. He staked his career on his reputation - it was Joe Paterno’s calling card, his ace in the hole. At the end of the day, did you want your son watched over by a football coach, or did you want him to have a father out there? His teams succeeded, he sent kids to the NFL, and he did it the right way. That was the pitch. You could trust Joe Paterno to - above all else - do what was best for YOUR child.
But in the end - like most people - you could really only trust Joe Paterno to do what was best for himself. And what was best for Joe Paterno was protecting the program. Hell, even a quick Google search turned up enough results to let you know this wasn’t the first time “the right thing for the program” clashed with “the right thing to do” in Paterno’s history at Happy Valley. Freeh simply shined a light on the darkest corners of the room, making them impossible to ignore. If you were on the “Let’s wait till all the facts are out” bus – this is the last stop.
And let me make it clear: No - all the people he’s helped, all the good he’s done - it does not get erased because of this one “non-football” mistake. When you consider how vast and far-reaching the impact of killing football would be – the jobs that would be destroyed, the impact on academics, the funding to non-football sports, the local economy that depends on a football season – I’m not even sure the death penalty is the right answer.
But all of the diplomas, wins, good deeds, and championships in the world don’t erase this massive, willful cover-up. Because somewhere out there, there are kids that had to suffer unspeakable evil in silence, because when faced with a moral decision, Paterno repeatedly chose “the program.”
I’m not here to cast the first stone, and I’m not trying to kick dirt on a man’s grave - I know that both things can be true. He can be the guy from the stories, and the guy from the grand jury testimony. And from the interviews, the columns, and the conversations with friends - I know I’m not alone. I’m not telling anybody how to remember Joe Paterno, because in the end Legacy is in the eye of the beholder.
So when I say I don’t care that he’s dead, please don’t mistake my tone for anger, because I’m not angry at him. And don’t take it as ambivalence... Because I care, I’m just not surprised. He wasn’t a hero. He was a man, and nothing more.
And let’s be honest: He got off easy. He’s the only one of us that wasn’t forced to stick around to find out just how bad it really was.
So let’s go about the business of figuring out what we can do from here. Let’s not get caught up arguing over whether they should keep football, or lose it, or how long it should go away for.
At this point, the main perpetrators are either dead or on their way to jail. What we need now isn’t a debate about football… kill it, or don’t. Let alumni get back to their lives, professors get back to their jobs, students get back to their studies – and the victims and families try to start healing.
But we do need a massive re-evaluation of the power structure and priorities of American universities. There is an imbalance that allowed for this, and while it happened in Happy Valley, I honestly believe it couldn’t have happened anywhere. We have to figure out how we got to a place where ‘the way we handle serial child rapists’ had to be ran by the coach of a football team. The revenue you bring in shouldn't grant you that kind of policy power.
They’re just men, after all.