Now Is Not the Time to Judge Joe Paterno

It may take years for the public to sort out their feelings on the famed (and shamed) coach.

The night before he began his arduous journey home to Ithaca, Odysseus slept with his captor, Calypso, one last time. It was a repeat of what happened every night during his seven years in her beautiful cave on Ogygia. It didn’t matter that Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, was back in Ithaca, remaining faithful, despite her husband’s 20-year absence (he left originally to fight in the Trojan War) and the continued presence in her palace of dozens of suitors eager to marry her in the wake of Odysseus’ presumed death.

Odysseus’ arduous return, during which he battles the Cyclops and evades the sea monster Scylla, is legendary, as are his war heroics. (It was he who concocted the idea of the Trojan Horse.) He is considered a hero of Greek mythology and his homecoming is widely celebrated–except by the suitors–with Penelope especially happy, and not just because she had rid her home of the freeloaders. Of course, he never comes clean about the Calypso stuff, but it doesn’t matter; the great man is home, and we are expected to focus on his exploits, rather than his infidelity. (He also shacks up with Circe on his way home.)

The point is, few heroes are perfect. Okay, so it’s hard to find some warts on Gandhi, and Mother Teresa had a pristine slate. But many other great men and women were far more complicated, and many are regarded primarily for their good deeds than their missteps.

So it will likely be with Joe Paterno, who died Sunday morning after a short bout with cancer and a controversial ending to his career as head football coach of Penn State. Until the allegations of sexual abuse against Jerry Sandusky were made public, and the Nittany Lion community was rocked by accusations of a cover-up and lack of proper, decisive action by the most powerful people on campus, Paterno was idolized as the epitome of an athletic administrator. The circumstances that dominated the last two-plus months of his life changed that somewhat, and we are left with a muddied portrait of a once-unassailable man.

It’s going to take some time before we can view Paterno accurately and fairly. His supporters will point to his extensive body of work, which includes tremendous success on the gridiron (two national titles, five undefeated seasons and four bowl wins), a true teacher’s approach to his players and unprecedented philanthropy–at least for a football coach–to the institution. For many people, Paterno was Penn State, and no amount of negativity at the end of his career can change that. It’s completely understandable, both from the point of view of those unwilling to indict their alma mater (or primary state university) and from those who believe that without Paterno’s significant contributions, Penn State would be nothing more than a relatively anonymous land-grant university.

The Sandusky allegations painted a different picture of Paterno, one apart from the coach who wanted his players to attend class and who donated millions to the school. He was presented as someone extremely interested in protecting his program and his own legacy, a man unwilling to make some tough choices, despite the high stakes involved and the alleged victims who might have been spared by a more courageous approach. Paterno was seen as part of an institutional hierarchy concerned about its image and bottom line, not as one sympathetic to the plight of boys whose lives were ruined by an alleged monster.

Whenever someone dies, it becomes impossible to view that person with the proper perspective. Justifying the many sides of his or her personality and actions is complicated by the weight of the moment. The sorrow of the passing and the feelings one has for his or her family and friends is profound. It often takes years and perhaps decades before the proper lens can be found to view the life and its moments. So it will be with Paterno. It is hard now to look at him as we did in November, when the alleged horrors of Sandusky’s behavior were revealed. Then, despite his age–84–and obvious decline, we were able to pass judgment on his unwillingness to press the matter more aggressively in 2002, when assistant coach Mike McQueary made him aware of what he had seen Sandusky doing in a Penn State football building shower to a young boy. We were able to view skeptically his assertion that he did not know in 1997 that Sandusky was being investigated for sexual molestation. The man was still alive, still in charge of a multi-million dollar program and still vibrant, albeit in a capacity diminished from even a few years before.

Now, it’s hard to do that. Paterno is gone. His family is bereft. The Penn State community is shocked. In fewer than three months, its most visible leader has been deposed and is now dead. The university is struggling to create a new identity and install credible leadership. It is not the time for definitive epitaphs.

When we reach that point, however, we will certainly struggle with Paterno’s legacy. Some will work the ends of the spectrum, either regaling or reviling the man. Others will seek a more nuanced approach. In the end, we will likely agree that the Paterno story features an imperfect hero, one capable of great things while still not completely the master of his world, despite the significant power he did wield. He will join a long list of such people, from King David to John F. Kennedy, and will be another example of how difficult it is to live a large life without incident or controversy.

For now, we must let Joe Paterno rest in peace. We must comfort his family. We must postpone judgment to allow for grieving. There will be plenty of time to take the measure of the man and reflect on his life.

But now is not that time.


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