One more time, Joe Paterno is center stage after this week’s release of the Freeh Report and the renewed shitstorm put forth by the temporary moralists of the world. Well, “temporary” isn’t the right word. Rogue moralists would be better: opinion columnists and commentators in general who see themselves as the floating vanguard of morality, able to parachute in on any moral quandary at a moment’s notice and point out to all of us what the easy, black-and-white answer is to the given situation.
Thank God we live in a world where these selfless heroes are here to protect us from, well, I guess our own personal values and judgment systems. We’re not smart enough to read that report on our own, study the overall situation carefully, weave it into the dozens of articles we’ve already read over the months on the topic and draw our own conclusions.
As you could imagine, I read that report and feel awful. Clearly, Joe knew something had happened with Sandusky and a kid in the coaches’ locker-room shower in 1998. That’s one thing – at the very least a warning sign of a situation that, while not illegal and extremely hard if not impossible to enforce in a court of law, was surely so far out of bounds and disturbing that it should have warranted Sandusky being booted from Penn State for eternity. (If you’re not aware, Sandusky showered with and bear-hugged a boy while both were naked in the shower.) Then in 2001, Joe was directly informed of a clear sexual assault in the same showers by Sandusky, and the net effect, whatever else happened, was that nothing substantial happened to this monster. This second known incident, with some knowledge of the first, should have been a declaration of war and complete disclosure that something terrible had occurred. Joe should have resigned right then and offered up an affidavit as to exactly what he knew.
I have to face the fact that Joe made terrible errors in judgment at that time, most likely to preserve his legacy, and think about it. If it wasn’t for Sandusky fooling around with a kid on a wrestling mat in a central Pennsylvania high school in 2010, and that story leading to the unraveling of this past 2001 incident, none of this would have come to light. They, meaning Joe and his administrative supervisors, would have quietly buried this thing, as was clearly intended, whether that was Joe’s call alone, or a group effort more likely. For all the power Joe is posthumously granted by so many people, if he really had that sort of power, he would have buried the 2001 incident immediately by not reporting it to his supervisor, which he did. What influence he exerted after reporting the incident, I don’t know. None of us really do at this point.
They clearly didn’t understand the scope of this thing, how damaging it would end up being. I’m guessing Joe’s life was an endless series of major issues and concerns as a Division I-A college football coach, and those two incidents, at the time and in the context of the dozens of other issues he surely dealt with routinely, seemed like side issues that concerned his program tangentially, but not directly. He paid dearly for his arrogance and the blinders he applied to his life, which didn’t allow him to fully gauge what was going out outside his program and family.
The whole thing smacks of that smothering university inertia, the belief that their system is superior to any outside force, that they can handle any situation on campus internally far better than the outside world. I’ve seen that mindset in effect a few times in my life, as noted, it’s another world unto itself, with its own set of rules, many of which have little to do with reality. Throw in a highly-successful football program run by a legendary coach for decades, and you have a perfect storm of cloistered unreality for those involved to make grave errors. They clearly had no clue how awful this thing was going to be when or if it ever came to light.
Joe’s legacy? His family wants us to believe he’s the same person he always was, and I can’t fault them for that. This report is another piece of the puzzle, and I’d rather not make any grand pronouncements about his character or legacy after this recent addition. This will be an unfolding story for a long time to come, and this media furor, as we’ve seen, will die down as the vultures find another carcass to pick at. I wouldn’t say it’s a good thing that his legacy is severely tainted, but it surely makes him a lot more human, and when you get a person living on that level of fame, the mistakes are that much larger and intensified.
While it doesn’t trouble me as much, I’ve pointed it out in the past how aggravating it’s been to see how the media and internet handle a situation like this. The faux outrage from people who don’t care about anything. The proud declarations of personal integrity, bravery and fortitude from writers who put themselves above the situation and see themselves as having an all-knowing view of what is going on. That strange herd mentality that encourages everyone to band together and have uniform opinion on an issue, or otherwise be branded as some sort of nut or pariah whose vision is clouded.
It’s fucking disgusting. Granted, nowhere near as disgusting as what happened in this god-awful scenario. But it’s disgusting. It’s not morality, although we’re presented with it as such. If you’re wondering how Jews were slaughtered in concentration camps by the millions in the 1930s and 40s, it was like this: group consensus shaped to give the illusion of easy answers. If you don’t see the same sort of diseased group-think in the way our media operates, the way it mass manufactures opinion as fact and slanted reporting as knowledge, then you’re not paying attention. I don’t think there is any great unseen hand guiding the media on this Penn State story – it’s simply people who run the media, the editors in high positions and such – knowing what type of story sells newspapers and ad space, and accordingly, taking stories like this and amplifying them a few thousand times louder and larger than they need to be, in easy-to-understand broadstrokes, so we can all rest easy knowing that real good and evil exist in the world, and the evil is being vanquished.
As if the world is ever going to be that easy. I have my own buttons that get pushed, too. I recently saw a clip on youtube of an elderly woman who was a school-bus monitor being abused mercilessly by the kids on the bus, in ways that made me feel like attacking those kids physically. It’s a natural reaction to feel some sense of outrage. I try not to expose myself to these sort of videos (which are legion on youtube, people acting crudely), because I know, all they’re going to do is wind me up needlessly over a situation that I have no control over.
Evil exists in the world, on a nonstop, 24-7 basis, whether we’re exposed to it or not, whether we choose to care about it or not. This is why the Penn State story isn’t blowing my doors off morally and causing me to don my Superman’s cape to take down Paterno and the university, so mankind can feel that much more safe, thanks to my noble efforts. You better believe the story upsets me. As an alumni, deeply. It’s a bad situation that has caused me to re-appraise a man I once viewed as a minor father figure of sorts. It’s caused all of us to do that, in one way or another, whether we’ll admit that to anyone else or not.
But seeing as my pajamas no longer have feet, I think I can handle this. I can live on with Joe Paterno’s legacy, knowing he dropped the ball terribly towards the end of his tenure. He did a phenomenal amount of good in his life, tempered with this regrettable lapse in judgment and morality in 2001 and thereafter. Ask me 10 years from now about this, and I’m sure I’ll have a different answer. Maybe better. Maybe worse. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this story, it’s that I’m not willing to offer final pronouncement, that the story keeps unfolding, and may do so for years to come. It took a very bad turn for the worse this past week, but again, come back in a decade and let’s talk then. The people having temporary moral shit-fits over this will be long gone, mind you, still having moral shit-fits, but about other stuff they only care about temporarily. And only the people who cared about the man in some sense will have an honest opinion about him.
I’m not worried about legacies, not even my own. Legacy implies that you’re dead, and here’s what people remember about you after you gone. Most of us will be forgotten. Famous writers, artists and musicians from centuries ago … most are forgotten. Only small handfuls of people study their work in some cases. And we’re talking some of the most influential people of their time. Every-day people, like me writing this or you reading this? Time passes, and in decades or centuries, we will be forgotten. That’s how it works. Whether you were a villain or a saint, famous or nobody, you will be forgotten. I don’t mean that as an insult: I mean it as a fact of life. Or more accurately, death. Very few people span generations, decades and then centuries, in terms of being remembered. And I suspect they are then remembered in highly inaccurate ways that fit some easy-to-grasp story we must be told about the good or evil this person did in his time.
Your only legacy should be how you live your life from one day to the next. That’s what Joe seemed to lose track of somewhere along the way. This thing he built over the course of his adult life became more than it was ever meant to be. He was meant to coach a college football team. You get that sense seeing interviews of him in the old days, in the 60s and 70s, this animated, sharp-as-a-knife, no-BS guy in his 30s and 40s having the time of his life, shaping his teams from one year to the next. But in the 80s, after the two national championships, this thing got heavier. And heavier in the 90s as coaching records were now in view to be chased. In the 00s, this cumbersome weight, must coach until that dying day (which he nearly did), can’t retire and take it easy, must be this benevolent entity that people understand and look up to so easily, because it’s all they understand about him, and all he understands about himself and his relationship to the outside world.
And when he got into that supposedly safe haven of legend, that’s where he lost his way, although I never would have pictured it playing out on the level it has. But it has, and we’re left to move forward without him, taking all the good and bad things we’ve picked up from him along the way, and using them however we choose. I’m not even sure if that’s the right take. Maybe he was so homed in his program that he wasn’t even thinking about his legacy … he just didn’t care about anything or anyone else outside his program. In either event, he paid for it, as did the victims of this monster.
I just can’t wrap it all up in a neat little package that makes you feel better about yourself. Or me better about myself. Or any of us better about the world in general. It’s not my job. It’s not anybody’s job, despite the valiant efforts of so many out there who see themselves this way. It’s my job here to let you know how someone who has an emotional investment feels, a lifelong Penn State fan, who gets blind-sided by this awful situation that presents shadowy opposites to the images of integrity and action we’d been taught to hold true. We expect this shit in our every-day lives, in our work places, where we see microcosms of this sort of abusive, secluded power routinely, where we accept it with deep reservations, grumble about it, put up with this shit, but somehow expect people like Paterno and his program to be above it all … when the reality was he was just as susceptible to radical errors in judgment and anywhere from mild to blatant disregard towards humanity in others. It happened here. Boy, did it happen here.
And I wish he was still around, so someone who could reach him could confront him like this and just speak openly, to get his take on all this now, to allow him the opportunity to drop all pretense and honestly appraise the situation. But he’s gone. We’ll learn more as time goes on, for the rest of our days, about this, about ourselves, about how we pick up and move on when life gets strange and ugly like this. I’m far too close to this to give you a simple answer. And I know too much about the world, about the darkness in it, and the darkness in myself, in all of us, to offer any sense of closure or finality with some damning conclusion. If it works that way for you, have at it, my take on the world is no more or less valid than yours. It surely works that way for Sandusky and me, no question about it. Paterno and me, that’s going to take much longer to figure out, if I ever do.