Photo: originally by Rob Carr, Getty
I was never a Penn State person. I had few close friends or relatives who went there, so I never quite got it. I knew Joe Paterno was viewed as some sort of deity, but I always thought the idolatry surrounding him, a football coach, was a bit creepy. Growing up a sports fan in Pennsylvania, though, it was hard to ignore his presence and to not have at least a tacit understanding of his influence on those in Happy Valley. That influence, which, still, was mostly inexplicable to me, extended far beyond the football field at Beaver Stadium. He had a statue, his name was on buildings, and 50,000 viewed him as the curmudgeonly grandfather whom they often never met. Strange.
But even taking into account the disproportionate worship directed at the coach, it was difficult to not subconsciously, at least, harbor some of those feelings toward Joe Pa. His teams were very successful, his players graduated, his program was rarely – if ever – mentioned in the same sentence as any sort of NCAA scandal, and, by all accounts, Paterno walked the talk. He donated money to the school, lived in a modest house the Golden Girls’ house, and, yeah, sort of reminded me of my take no shit, here’s my last dime Italian grandfather, who, in his naivety, still called black people “colored,” and meant it without connotation.
Sometimes, old people just miss out on the most basic elements of society’s progress.
So, when Paterno told the Washington Post that he had “never heard of rape and a man,” he was most likely telling the truth. And when he thought he did enough by passing along Mike McQueary’s tale to superiors… well, he probably wasn’t fooling himself. Paterno may have simply been too naive for his own good, thanks in large part to the bubble that he created.
That doesn’t excuse his relative inaction following that Saturday morning meeting with McQueary, nor is it to say Paterno wasn’t in the wrong in this whole situation– he was. He was wrong, and more children were probably raped by his former defensive coordinator because Paterno didn’t realize his own power.
What's the saying, “With great power, comes great responsibility?” Joe seemingly missed that memo.
Sandusky’s actions and the resulting coverup became, and remains, a very polarizing issue. Heinous acts tend to be viewed in black-and-white, and all enablers of such acts, no matter how culpable, are rightfully viewed in the same manner– either wrong or right.
Joe Paterno, with his failure to comprehend and act on what he had been told, was wrong.
It’s important, however, that we separate the life of Joe Paterno from the grave mistakes he made in relation to Jerry Sandusky. With the case and story far from over, it’s hard to not reflexively think about recent events at the mere mention of anything related to Penn State, especially Paterno, and that’s probably not fair… especially to Paterno.
Most of us think of ourselves as good people, but we have all thought and done things that, if known by the general public, would probably make us look or seem like monsters. Many of our neatly-pressed skeletons hang with far less severe consequences than those of Paterno’s inactions, but some probably hang with far worse, too. And just as we wouldn’t want to be judged on that one heinous mistake we made, it’s only fair that, on his death, we look at the whole of Joe Paterno.
By all accounts, 99% of Paterno’s life was positive. Extraordinary, perhaps. He wasn’t an evil man. He didn’t rape little boys. He didn’t systematically dupe the system to feed his deviant desires. And (it seems) he didn’t knowingly allow a man – to whom, by most accounts, he wasn’t very close – to feed his. No, Paterno made a horrific mistake in his mid-seventies, but he had lived for three-quarters of a century prior, building up a record that contained few, if any, blemishes in a world and profession where that is the exception, far from the norm. Right now, though, as is often the case with our society, the 1% is defining the existence of the other 99%. That shouldn't be the case. Paterno's life shouldn’t be viewed in black-and-white or blue-and-white (pun intended); rather, it should be viewed in a shade of grey, which is where most realities lie, anyway.
As I said, I don’t have any skin in this game. I’m not a Penn State lover, I didn’t grow up worshipping Joe Paterno. But it’s hard for the heart not to break for a man who dedicated two-thirds of his life (and most of his family’s) to one vision, a vision that, perhaps deservingly, was ripped away from him in the final months of his life in the most horrific and public fashion our modern society allows. Everything Paterno had worked to build – his life’s work, both on the field and off – gone when he dialed a phone number on a November evening. As such, those premature reports of his death this weekend were not premature at all– Joe Paterno died when he hung up that telephone a little more than two months ago.
And if you’re asking me which shade of grey I’d choose to define Paterno, I’d pick Light Slate Grey, #F0F2F4. It contains a hint of blue… but is mostly white. After all, he was Penn State.