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Joe

I have been trying hard to write something that encapsulates my feeling on what is happening with Penn State. I have some 12,000 words in a Google document that I have been writing into since I read the grand jury presentment Sunday afternoon. The document has been open nonstop and any time I have spent in front of my laptop has more or less been devoted to jotting down thoughts and trying to expand upon them in the hopes of creating a substantial and comprehensive narrative or analysis or whatever.

I’ll probably go back into that document some other time, but for right now it is closed and I will say this.

I grew up going to Penn State football games with my dad. My dad loved Penn State football and in large part this was because he absolutely adored Joe. He always thought Paterno was such an admirable man. Humble, kind, simple, generous, industrious, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. A real man’s man. Joe lived in a tiny ranch house just off campus and walked to work every day. It was always about “the kids” with Paterno. He always deflected praise toward his players, and when things went poorly he was the first to jump on the grenade. His seeming obliviousness to how great he was made him even greater in the eyes of his admirers. Dad was always quick to point these things out to me. One of the things I loved the most about my dad was how he would grow attached to people who, in his eyes, seemed to do things the right way. To him, Joe was just about the perfect example.

Paterno never shied away from disciplining his athletes. If one of his players missed a class or got in trouble with the law he would be dealt with swiftly and sternly. Joe was unafraid to bench insubordinate players, even if they were among the best on the team. This was a trait of Paterno’s that dad loved greatly. It always seemed to be about life more than football for Paterno. He took great pride in graduating an exceedingly high number of his players. He understood that the sport was merely a vessel through which he could help mold and shape the lives of the players he coached with the intention of making them better people. This is the Joe Paterno I grew up with.

I celebrated in these hosannas with my Dad for a long time. My dad was my hero growing up. If he really believed in this man then so did I. And as I got to that age where I was too cool for my dad and I wanted to rebel against EVERYTHING familial authority stood for, I started to cast aside the romantic notion that a football coach could be as great a man as I had been raised to believe he was and tried to evaluate him for myself. Though as I backed off of my devotion to the religion of JoePa I found that maybe there was something to my dad’s belief in him. I was old enough now to realize that he wasn’t a deity, but in comparison to the greedheads and charlatans that permeated collegiate football he was a relative saint.

This is why I have such a hard time believing that Paterno would willingly and complicitly be a part of something so incredibly vile. He lived his entire life trying to make people’s lives better, yet when faced with something like this he simply chose to ignore it? It’s hard to reconcile. You might not like Penn State and you might not like Joe Paterno, but it’s incredibly hard to believe that someone who has lived this kind of life – with several kids and grandkids of his own – would choose to let child rape happen right under his nose and do nothing to stop it.

A caller to a radio show last night asked how Mike McQueary could witness an act of child rape and do nothing but run home and call his daddy. The radio host said that while we all like to think we would have done something to intervene, we can’t say for sure until we are put in that situation. I suppose that’s true, but if we’re going to give the man who witnessed this horrific act a mea culpa then surely we have to understand how Paterno might have failed to notify the police after the accusations were brought to his attention. What, exactly, did McQueary tell Paterno? What if McQueary was wrong? Lying? What if Paterno had called the police only to come to find that McQueary screwed up and now Sandusky’s life was ruined? Now that we know all the facts it’s easy to say that Paterno really, really screwed up. In the moment, without any more evidence than an accusation from a single eyewitness, don’t Paterno’s actions seem at least a little bit understandable? Does it not seem plausible that after sending these accusations up the ladder Paterno was contacted by his superiors who told him that everything was handled? We already know Spanier and Curly and Schultz are scumbags, isn’t it a possibility that they told Paterno something to the effect of, “We interviewed McQueary, he said it was a misunderstanding. He was wrong about what he witnessed. Just to be safe we’re going to take Jerry’s keys to the building, but we want you to know that everything is okay. Everything is handled.”

I know, I know. I am a rambling Penn State apologist. I might as well head to State College and start overturning news trucks. I’m not saying this is definitely what happened, but as someone who has always believed that Paterno is a fair and competent person I think it’s important to allow some wiggle room here. Did he put his beloved football program over all else? I can’t definitively eliminate that possibility. But it would take a true monster to allow something like this to continue uninvestigated. I just don’t think Joe Paterno is a monster.

I agree with the decision of the Penn State Board of Trustees to fire Paterno. This was a systemic breakdown and Paterno is part of that system. It seems that the only proper course of action is for any administrators who had knowledge of this in 2002 to be fired, as well as anyone involved with the football program from 2002 that is still with the team. The university needs to divorce itself from these people and do whatever is necessary to bring Jerry Sandusky to justice for the lives he has ruined.

I just hope people remember that Jerry Sandusky is the man who ruined all those lives.

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