I just wanted to get out a couple of thoughts on the Joe Paterno situation. The good thing about not having a real writing job is that I don’t have a real editor breathing down my neck for a timely article. I have the luxury of taking my time to let things percolate.
I’ve thought about things and at the end to the day, I feel indescribably sad for Paterno. Of course I sympathize for the victims of the abuse that occurred, but I’m focusing on Joe Paterno here, not Jerry Sandusky and his crimes. (Another benefit of not having a real job is that I can say crimes and not “alleged crimes”. He’s guilty. See, I can say that too.) I have no relationship with the victims, and the legal protections in place will prevent me from ever knowing anything about them. I’m left to imagine their situation, and quite frankly I don’t want to.
But as a sports fan, I did have a relationship with Joe Paterno. Paterno became the head coach at one of our country’s most storied college sports programs years before I was even born. Since I was old enough to read a sports page, he’s been there. And trust me, I’ve read a lot of sports pages over the years.
But beyond that, when you read more about his story, he lived an amazing life. The number of young men he inspired to do better in their own lives is too many to count. The dedication he had to helping others help themselves, while done in private during his life, are finally being revealed after his death. The model program he led showed us all that we didn’t need to prostitute our values to have success in sports. Yet the tragic consequences of a series of bad decisions in his 80s, has led to a downfall that is heart wrenching.
Does anyone really think that if informed of the full extent of Sandusky’s behavior Paterno would have leaned back and thought, “well everyone needs a hobby”, or “he may be a sick man, but he’s one heck of a defensive coordinator”? A look at Paterno’s track record makes that impossible to believe. Yes, his lack of action is appalling. Yes, we all believe we would have done something different. Yes, Jerry Sandusky needs to spend some time in a prison general population so he gets his due. But think about Paterno. A legacy of dedication to excellence, a legacy of leadership, a legacy of doing the right thing are tarnished because of a brief period in his 85-year life when he didn’t do the right thing.
But here’s the part that stands out to me. I’m sure over time, hard feelings toward Paterno will soften. Long after Sandusky is dealt with, society will once again remember Joe Paterno the way he should be remembered. But Paterno will never know it. Just a few weeks after being unceremoniously kicked out of Penn State, he took his final breaths and fell victim to lung cancer. I have heard that it’s not uncommon for a person of advanced aged to pass away soon after their spouse has died. I have a fear this is what happened to Paterno. His life’s work, his opus at Penn State, died in a public furor more appropriately aimed at Jerry Sandusky. Too soon thereafter, Paterno died too. I just hope his last thoughts were of a pleasant nature. But I fear it may have been, “I led, I inspired, I shaped. I set a good example, I was a good husband and a good father. Yet, I leave today as a pariah.” That’s why I feel so sad.