Sometimes, there is no context.
Mark Antony was being facetious when he claimed that he came “to bury Caesar, not to praise him” but the truth in his subsequent statement, that “the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones” is readily apparent. In some cases, our society’s tendency to remember only the bad, to allow the fleeting or momentary mistake to outweigh and overwhelm a lifetime of better deeds, is improper. But this is not the case when it comes to Joe Paterno.
For at least a dozen years, the man who lived as one of the most widely beloved and respected public figures in America harbored a horrible secret: that he had participated in covering up allegations of heinous behavior by his assistant coach and friend Jerry Sandusky. He even helped arrange for a nice retirement package, emeritus status and free run on university property, allowing Sandusky to continue to rape children on the premises of the place that Paterno had come to define.
A lot of people so admired Joe Paterno that these revelations seem impossible. So much so that they are either refusing to believe them or otherwise couching their outrage in terms that make it clear they have yet to accept the truth of the matter. Several PSU students are quoted in today’s New York Times as saying things along the line of “I wish he had done more.” The Paterno family expressed regret only that he didn’t “push his superiors” to do more. As though anyone in Happy Valley could truly have been superior to Paterno.
Nearly as infuriating as those people who seem to want to separate Paterno into two separate persons. These people talk about “the stain on his legacy” or the “black mark overwhelming all the good he accomplished.”
What they are attempting to do is to put the reprehensible scandal, and its sickening coverup, into a proper context. They are talking about how tragic it is that Paterno will only be remembered for this last part of his life, instead of as a great football coach.
Bullshit. Paterno can, should, and hopefully will only be remembered as the person so concerned with preserving his legacy that he turned a blind eye to the raping of children. Ex-players and fans who adored him will talk about how much he taught them, how he inspired them, and so on, but really, what do they amount to in comparison with this? So what if a few linebackers owe him their careers?
What has finally been established beyond dispute is that, no matter what else he may have done, Joe Paterno was the kind of guy who would allow a cult to develop around himself, and when that was put into jeopardy, the kind of guy who would do anything to preserve it. Everything about Joe Paterno, from the condescending manner in which he discussed running a program the right way to the way he tried to remain lovable by joking about his old-age and being out of touch with technology, was all about remaining the figure he had become through longevity and success.
In the last years of his tenure, it was something of a joke among college football fans how obvious it was that Paterno wasn’t really coaching the team. He was on the sidelines, but he wasn’t wearing headphones, and it wasn’t apparent that he was doing anything other than standing there, serving as a living monument to his own greatness. It was clear that the people in charge were subservient to his will, that if he wanted he could and would die before resigning.
In my opinion, whenever it came to their attention that Sandusky was a pedophile, the people in charge at Penn State just continued doing what they had always done: they turned their thoughts to Paterno and how it would affect him. They made a conscious decision, which the Freeh report established he was involved with and agreed to, to keep Sandusky’s behavior from becoming public so as not to damage Joe Paterno’s reputation. They had followed in a long line of alums, trustees, and fans in so connecting the coach with the institution itself that they knew that if the man were tarnished the school would be too, inextricably.
Joe Paterno was a false god, and they worshipped him as much as he worshipped himself. That’s the way they justified behavior that surely all of them knew would be rightly considered abhorrent when viewed from the outside.
There is no way that Penn State can ever be the same after this, nor should it. I can’t believe this point will be contentious, but it will be: the football program must be suspended, if not disbanded. Football can play no part in whatever process of recovery is about to commence. The disordered reverence for the sport and its practitioners is what allowed this rotting wound to fester in the very soul of the university. Everyone who supported the program and Paterno must take a look at themselves and examine whether they have truly got things in the right perspective. Allowing things to get back to normal is not what is called for. Football will not help heal anyone, but rather allow them to go back to making the same errors that have lead to this tragedy.
All of us could stand for such a personal examination. After all, the worship for Paterno is not dissimilar to that for any number of coaches or other public figures. When we make a man into a god we forget that men can do wrong. Let us look around us for the false gods, and remind ourselves that they are men, maybe even great men, but nothing more.