Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno died at 85 years of age, January 22, 2012. Despite his long and enormously successful life his demise leaves us with a sense of something unfinished.
After 46 seasons as head coach at one university and 409 NCAA Division I football victories, the most on record, you wouldn’t think people would think “What if?” But they do.
Paterno’s last season in fall 2011 was marred by horrible allegations of sexual abuse against boys perpetrated over several years by former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. Paterno was accused of acting legally but minimally (after he’d heard about the allegation from an assistant coach who says he witnessed an incident of Sandusky’s abuse of a 10 year old boy in a PSU football locker room shower). Paterno is accused of not doing enough morally and of being ultimately responsible. So November 9, 2011, Paterno was summarily fired as head football coach.
No matter how you slice this story it is sad, egregiously so. It is heart wrenching for the number of youthful victims of perverted sex. It is sad for their families then and now. It’s sad for a university that, though clearly culpable through the inactions and misdirection of its administrators—or perhaps also for allowing a culture of invincibility to develop around a sport—is still largely peopled by individuals whose interest is in learning and in the other good things that come from a school with this level of quality. There’s more than enough blame and collateral damage to go around.
It’s sad for Joe Paterno and his family. Sure, there are those who say they don’t care, that Paterno deserves all he got and more, and that nothing compares to the hurts of the real victims. Who can disagree at least with the last point?
But if Paterno, based on what we know now, is responsible for leadership. “The buck stops here,” Harry Truman said, than how does this play out? Do we dismiss as meaningless Paterno’s life of consistent integrity and investment in young men? If Paterno were a participant in the abuse, I’d say “Yes.” But given that he was not, that he reported what he’d heard to his superiors, and that he trusted them to do their jobs, I’d say “No.” It’s not justifiable to denigrate Paterno or his accomplishments beyond the right/wrong of his sins of omission in this case.
I’m not saying this because I’m a football fan or a Paterno fan, per se. I’m saying this because I think accountability and certainly retribution should fit the indiscretion or failure. Paterno failed for not getting it, for not going ballistic on Sandusky or PSU administrators, for not calling the police.
But he did not, as far as we know at this time, commit a crime, hurt children, or act dishonorably, even when the PSU Board made Paterno the scapegoat and gutlessly and tactlessly fired him by phone.
I am glad the A.D., a V.P., and the President were all fired. They deserved it because they did not act on information given to them. They may have covered up. Paterno did neither. And I’d say that if the buck stops at the top, some of the Board leadership should also go. They handled the crisis poorly at best.
So for all Paterno’s legitimate football achievements, for all his admirable coaching impact upon a long list of known and little known people, for all that’s amazing and good in his story, his death leaves business unfinished. He departs with questions hovering in the air. He leaves us wondering what he would have said and what he yet could have contributed to the trial that is to come for Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno goes to his reward with us wishing he’d been able to stay around a little longer and help us make sense of a tragedy. It’s not about his legacy, as he would have said, but about finding truth and justice that can begin to make us whole again.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012
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