Joe Paterno’s Life Should Be Judged in Shades of Grey, Not Black or White


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.


34 Responses

  1. Nice article, Kyle. I agree that his life should be viewed as a whole and not just simply confined to the past four months. That being said, we can’t forget what happened in order to make sure it never happens again. Rest in peace, Joe.

  2. football was the only thing keeping him alive. i think we all knew when he lost his football team, he was going to lose his life.

  3. One of your better efforts. I think that you accurately portrayed the situation, and I think history will ultimately judge Joseph V. Paterno in much the same way. It does amaze me how many haters there are out there, as well as those who are completely blind. Your column balances most of those issues. Now if we can only avoid the cheap humor directed at certain members of his family (i.e. FSP)……..

  4. Listen, this article is way too pragmatic. Either Paterno was the patron saint of Central Pennsylvania or he was a pedophile. Sincerely, America

  5. Great article, Kyle. Every word is the truth. I do think that once the fire burns down a bit and it’s easier to analyze things in a more neutral light, history will see that this small blemish on his legacy won’t overpower everything else he’s done to build his team’s reputation. Everything just takes time.

  6. As a Penn State graduate, and an infrequent/reluctant Crossing Broad reader, I find this a very down to earth, level-headed look at a polarizing topic. RIP Joe.

  7. Good post. But you’re being way too reasonable! I need Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless to make sense of this.

  8. Kyle, absolutely top notch work on this article……extremely good and impressed I will be sharing this on FB with my friends.
    Truly exceptional and way to put tough complex feelings into words…

  9. My personal jury is still out regarding JoePa.
    If 2002 was the first time he learned of allegations against Sandusky, then I give him an ‘F’ for his response to the charge. He did report it and pass a legal test, but not a moral test. In light of six decades of good work, the man made an error, a fumble, so to speak and should pass out of this world with some dignity.
    However, if it turns out (and we may find out as this case runs its course), that JoePa was aware of the 1998 allegations against Sandusky, then his 2002 response is an absolute disgrace and his statue should be removed from PSU property. If Joe knew about 1998 and knew about 2002 and did nothing more than call the AD and say: “We may have a problem, I think.” This man’s name should come off every building.
    One mistake that harmed children is one thing, an ongoing pattern of shielding a pedophile is quite another.

  10. It won’t be the same next year driving to state college on football saturday mornings to get F up tailgating & then head into beaver stadium.
    Heading out that night if they win to try to get some p*ssy & then drive back to philly after the bars shut.

  11. I liked the article, besides this.
    “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.”
    Complete and utter bullshit on that I call. Paterno frequently protected crimminals by choosing who he reported crimes to. Some crimes need to go a little higher than his superiors and/or campus police who are coworkers of everyone at Penn State and are paid by the same people. This isn’t the first time a Penn State crime has gone by the wayside when it involves football. Also man on boy rape has existed since the beginning of time, and EVERYONE knows it, including Joe Pa. Naive? Is that a new term to describe how a fox thinks? I didn’t think so.

  12. Kyle, you are usually spot on with a lot of these, but I have to call horseshit on Paterno and “not knowing about a man and rape.”
    Paterno was an English major from an elite Ivy League school. There is no doubt in my mind he had read literature and stories from Ancient Greece translated to English. One of the running jokes still about the greeks are their propensity for pedophilia, based on sterotypes from literature and history. Spartan Boys spend all those years in the wild with an adult man!
    So excuse me for not buying into his WashPo interview, but I call Bullshit AND Shenanigans. Joe Pa was looking out for a friend over a child, plain and simple.

  13. @that guy- Joe Pa & Sandusky hated each other & weren’t friends. get your facts straight & come back and see me

  14. oh did they? Then why didn’t the almighty Paterno go ahead and kick him out of his building? When there were first rumblings of Jerry fiddling little kids in the late 90’s didn’t he remove him from his building after Jerry retired? Hell, if it was me, I would have been spearheading an effort saying “this guy is no good.”
    And just so everyone’s clear, I’m not a PSU/Paterno hater, I am just a “child toucher hater”
    McQueary is the biggest scumbag out of all of them here.

  15. Yeah, I think this is one of your best articles.. I really liked it..
    And surprisingly, I am NOT a PSU fan. At all! Nor a Joe Pa fan/sympathizer. But after reading this. I feel compassion for him. At least alittle bit.. I can def. see he died of a broken heart.
    But, what I’ve been saying to all those super PSU fans who I can’t stand right now : I understand he did alot for the school, but he still allowed a child rapist to go away free for what, 10 years ? If not more.. Not only that, but seeing as how Joe Pa was practically a PSU god, why didnt’ he not allow Sandusky access to the school grounds, instead of allowing him access up until a month of his arrest this last year.. Makes no sense to me. If I was Joe Pa I would have kicked his ass out and made him give me all his PSU apparel…
    Just doesn’t make sense. He’s def not as innocent as everyone keeps saying. It’s just football people. Not innocent children being raped.

  16. @thatguy – It had been widely reported in local media here in State College that Joe had actually asked to ban Sandusky from the football and athletic facilities post 2002. He was told by Curley that he did not have that authority. People think of Joe as some harborer of a sicko for the sake of winning or the “brand”. By every single account from those close to the program, Paterno and Sandusky’s relationship could be described as professional AT BEST, more likely something much less than that. Joe stayed for all of about 5 minutes at Sicko’s retirement dinner – and that was prior to the 2002 incident. Joe had no interest in going out of his way to protect Sandusky.
    Joe should’ve followed up – I am Penn State guy and I believe that in my heart of hearts. He failed. But nothing that anyone will ever say will convince me that he understood the gravity or reality of what exactly Big Red told him that morning in 2002. Ever.
    The man is a father of 5 and a grandfather of 17. What would ever convince a truly rational person that he would knowingly protect or enable a predator.
    Read this.

  17. I have read a lot of Paterno obituaries and tributes the past two days, and this may be the best of the bunch. The last line is simply perfect. Well done Kyle.

  18. came on here specifically to see what you had to say on this situation and i must say this is on point

  19. Though the old coach was on a respirator that made it difficult to talk, it didn’t stop him from teasing Scott on Thursday about his weight. Again. Dad playfully pointed to his son’s belly.
    “He did that every time,” Scott Paterno said.

  20. Ave Atque Ale, Joe Pa.
    I wiser feller than meself once said:
    “It is easy to judge evil unmixed… But, alas, in most of us good and bad are closely woven as the threads on a loom; greater wisdom than mine is needed for the judging.”

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