When I heard that Joe Paterno had been diagnosed with “a treatable form of” lung cancer, on top of a broken hip, I said to a few people, “He’ll be gone inside a year.”
As it turned, out he was gone much sooner, as in today. As I know from harsh personal experience, anyone that age being treated for cancer is rolling the dice, chances are the treatment itself will create conditions (pneumonia, most likely) that will kill the person rather than the cancer itself. And the doctors will shrug and ignore the fact that one of their patients just died. (At least that’s how they treated my father and us.)
Of course, this isn’t just a factory worker with four grown kids who passed on but a college football legend, saddled with a recently-tarnished image we’ve all been bludgeoned with for the past few months. I’ve pretty much said my peace on that subject in two previous posts. His passing changes nothing in that regard.
Hearing the news, I felt terrible. Sensed it was coming, but not that fast. Get ready for the armchair moralists and dogshit sports columnists to gear up their hype machines again, for more sermons on the mount from people you should trust about as far as you could throw. Writing can be a fairly enlightening and heroic profession, at times. But at other times, it presents people who aren’t good at communicating anything real, but are more than glad to infuse the culture with a type of easy, greeting-card mediocrity that so many people mistake as moral turpitude. For all the writers I’ve known, I don’t think there are any I would trust as great moralists, myself included. At least I’ll tell you as much, rather than pretend I’m wielding some magic wand that illuminates all I touch. I’m no more or less human than you are, and just as prone to getting things wrong.
People are going to remember the man however they want to. This man had a profoundly positive influence on me for decades. That sense of stressing intellectual pursuits, whatever else you do in life. In his case, he was giving free college educations to kids who were tremendous athletes. In return, those kids were given the opportunity to be part of a great college football program that brought in millions of dollars to the university. Some of those kids were so talented that they then took their skills, sharpened by him and his staff, and made their fortunes as professional football players. Some fell by the wayside, or never quite clicked with the program. Most did as noted above, got free college educations, which is nothing to scoff at, especially for impoverished kids from small towns and inner cities. And in Penn State’s case, they were openly encouraged to stay the course and graduate with a degree.
May not seem like much, but it is at that level, where those kids are treated like icons, and no doubt were to some degree at Penn State, too. But beneath the bluster, beneath the occasional flame-out and passing controversy, there was that steady line of graduates. This is Joe Paterno’s legacy, after all is said and done.
If you feel the need to tie in this awful Sandusky situation in with it, feel free. I do, too, but I keep it in perspective. Unless otherwise proven over the next few months or years, I’m going to assume that Joe did what he supposed to, report the situation to his immediate authorities, who then did nothing. I’m going to take his word for it that he didn’t really know what Sandusky was doing and had no knowledge of the 1998 investigation. If this is not the case, then now that he’s gone, it should be much easier for someone to come forward, an investigator or participant from either the 1998 case or this 2002 case, and state otherwise. My mind is surely open to that, or any, type of new knowledge and insight being shed on this case.
Even with that take on things, the Board of Regents still held him accountable and claimed the reason he was fired was because he didn’t do more in the situation. And I can surely see their point of view, given that he over-road their authority in the past and was guessing he could do it again, save no one was prepared for the media explosion when this story broke. What most people aren’t realizing is the Board of Regents is a voluntary organization; I’m not even sure if those people get paid. These are people, probably all of them alumni who want to still be part of the university, who have done pretty well for themselves in life, have successful careers in other areas, and joining the Board of Regents for their college alma mater looks good on the resume and the monument they’ve built to themselves.
People seem to think it’s some shadow organization of campus insiders pulling strings. No. It’s highly-visible alumni, and I gather many of them are going to clear out after this whole scenario, as they’re no doubt receiving a ton of grief over what they did from other alumni. I suspect that there will be some type of pardon for Joe issued by the Board over the next year or two over how we was let go. If you’re not part of the Penn State universe and having a hard time seeing that, then maybe you should grasp that there are two worlds here: the outside world, which has been a shitstorm of accusation and shame, and the Penn State world, where Paterno’s legacy over the past five or so decades looms large over so many things on that town, campus and state.
Like so many alumni, I’m part of both worlds. Far away from that Penn State world. I graduated, and aside from spending my summer after graduation there, then revisiting the place once for Arts Festival in the early 90s, I’ve had virtually nothing to do with the campus. They got enough money from me the first time around, so I’m not a donator, especially when I see what they’re charging kids now. I feel no burning need to attach myself to the university, but I do take some sort of pride in associating myself with the college, and am grateful for the time I spent there, as those few years opened me up in innumerable ways that I’m still learning from today.
Paterno and his legacy are tied into that feeling. Not his myth. His legacy … what he did … not what we think he did (or didn’t) do. I’m with a lot of people on this – he should have done more when that incident was reported to him. Everyone should have done more. They didn’t, and this thing turned into a shitstorm of epic proportions that brought down his career and damaged the program he spent a lifetime building. The sting for Joe was being fired after being a coach there since the early 1950s. Since the early 1950s. Imagine working for a place that long, rising so high, achieving so much … and one day, you’re fired over the phone … for doing what you were supposed to do according to school policy? It seems to me that had he contacted, say, the state police on his own back in 2002, doing so could have just as easily led to him being fired for ignoring school policy on handling such situations.
Either way, he wasn’t going to win this one. And if there’s one thing I learned watching Penn State football, you absorb the losses. Some of them stay with you the rest of your days, but you absorb them. You live with them. I still don’t know what happened in this situation, and I suspect Joe’s passing will have little to do with how this scenario plays out. In his last interview, a few days before he passed, he seemed to give a pretty straightforward account about what he did and why he did it. Either you believe him, or you don’t. There will now be plenty of time for anyone who wants to come forward and either prove or disprove what he claimed.
I feel awful today, as does any Penn State football fan. Most people don’t get to choose when they die, and I’m sure Joe would have chosen to live longer and try to clear his name in all this. But I don’t think there’s anything more he could have done, save to reiterate what he said in his last interview and stand by his words. He deserved a better way out, but as I could see with my father, chances are we will all deserve better ways out. My point being, there’s no easy way out of here, and if you think there is, you’ve been reading too many glowing obituaries where it seems the person was lifted to heaven by a gathering of angels, after the deceased muttered famous last words for his loved ones to live by, and they, bearing candles and warm, understanding smiles, watched him float free of all worldly cares to a better place.
No. Shit happened. Did not go according to plan. But it’s done. It’s for the rest of us to pick ourselves up and prepare for whatever life throws at us next. I’ll miss the man immensely, for those things he taught me in my life.