Joe Paterno wasn’t dead on Friday night, but Facebook was already glutted with nauseating tributes—one referenced the “sky crying blue tears.” Get a grip; he was a football coach, he was 85, and the pall of scandal under which he died is very legitimate. All the Penn State-isms in Happy Valley can’t fix that; in fact, those are making matters worse. If I were one of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged victims, or one of their parents, this hero worship of a bystander with Paterno’s clout would probably give me a stroke.
Being born and raised in Philadelphia, a city of notoriously bipolar sports fans, I found the Cult of Paterno a curious phenomenon. I was a freshman at Penn State when they won the National Championship in 1986, and everyone was chugging the Kool-Aid, especially after that win, but it wasn’t because Paterno asked them to do it. In fact, he always seemed to me to be uncomfortable and a little bit embarrassed by the adoration. He preferred to be seen as a philanthropist. Maybe it was because he was smart enough to know that being the CEO of a football factory is not the same as curing AIDS or digging wells in Africa. He also wanted to be seen as an educator, but football players don’t get recruited to Penn State to write term papers.
As the truth was literally spewing out of all ends of State College last November, of course the cameras turned to Paterno. He looked genuinely dumbfounded when he came out to wave the zealots off his front lawn. For the first time ever, not only did the University not have his back, but he became their burnt offering to the public. He didn’t know what to say, so he told those crazy kids to go home and study.
He regrouped, lawyered up, and dispatched his son to give a prologue to his interview. In a sports coat and sweater, perched on a stool, Jay Paterno referred to his father, the mighty patriarch, as “Joe.” The angle was clearly going to be that Joe was just a regular working stiff, reporting to his superiors, like any regular working stiff would. But how many regular working stiffs are being chased by every major media outlet in the country, and then get to hand-pick the Washington Post to tell their side of the story?
Paterno’s image of being simple and humble was not totally disingenuous. He was acutely aware of his sweet life and took opportunities to express his gratitude for it. Ironically though, it was his grandiosity that came through when he told Post reporter, Sally Jenkins, that he “didn’t feel adequate to deal with the situation.” He attempted to make the ongoing sexual abuse of children about him—his inadequacy, which was really his discomfort with a sordid subject. None of us would know exactly what to do if this kind of information were to land in our laps, but the fact that we aren’t social workers, child psychologists or cops doesn’t get us off the hook.
It would have been enough for Joe Paterno to have said to anyone who would listen, which—considering who he was—would be everyone: “I think Jerry Sandusky is raping boys.” Maybe the University would have still tried to silence him, and maybe the law would have still been confusingly ineffective, but the media would have prevailed; they would have used their powers for good and, at the very least, might have shamed Sandusky into exile. Maybe Paterno would have been fired, but it would have been as a crusader for children and for truth. These posthumous sentiments that he, too, was a victim of Sandusky are an ignorant belittlement of all victims of sexual abuse. Paterno made his choices. It’s hard to believe that a father, a grandfather, and a person who spent the better part of his life around young people could ignore the base instincts that made him the personification of success.
I remain a proud Penn State graduate. After growing up in Philadelphia, going to school in Happy Valley was like living in a snow globe. It is a significant part of my personal history, especially since my own two kids are products of a Penn State romance. So, to my fellow alumni I say, honor the integrity of the victims and their families, and support the long road they have ahead of them by giving the schmaltzy Penn State platitudes a rest.