Joe Paterno Wasn’t a Hero

So why are we flying our flags at half-staff?

Earlier today, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett ordered that all flags at Commonwealth facilities be flown at half-staff until legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is laid to rest. He did this after declaring that Paterno’s “place in our state’s history is secure” and once former President George H.W. Bush deemed the coach “an outstanding American.”

Somebody please tell me: Am I missing something?

I know that it’s generally considered bad taste to besmirch the dead, at least while they’re still above ground. But given the avalanche of tributes and accolades and candlelit vigils happening right now, I simply must.

Joe Paterno was a football coach. Granted, he was a great football coach of the kind they just don’t make anymore, a throwback to the days when sports was sports and business was business. He was, says President Bush, “a true icon in the sports world.” One of my colleagues explained to me earlier today that “Penn State wouldn’t be Penn State without him.” Another colleague elaborated: “Penn State was basically an agricultural school before Paterno came around.”

And so what exactly is Penn State now? It’s a school known for two things: football and sex abuse, both of which Paterno helped make possible.

There’s no question that Paterno was aware of sexual-abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky. And there’s also no question that Paterno did as little as possible to intervene. Oh, he did that which was legally required of him—at least his lawyer says he did—but the minimum legally required shouldn’t be a standard we adhere to when it comes to the protection of our children.

In his interview with the Washington Post, Paterno used the ignorance defense stating, “… I never heard of, of, rape and a man.” Well, that just doesn’t ring true. It sounds like an old, dying man trying to justify his behavior and preserve whatever scraps of his legacy and dignity that he can.

Paterno was 75 in 2002. Are we really expected to believe that in those 75 years of life that he had never heard of men sexually abusing boys? Keep in mind that in the weeks prior to Paterno learning of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal in Boston was blowing up all over the national news. In the days leading up to Paterno’s revealing meeting with Mike McQueary—the one where McQueary told him about the disturbing event he had witnessed in the shower—every major newspaper in the country and every television network was covering the tragic events in Boston. There’s no way that Paterno, a lifelong Catholic, was oblivious to these stories.

There was one person at Penn State in a position to put a stop to Sandusky’s alleged abuse of children, and that person was the most powerful, most well-regarded, most respected person on campus: Joe Paterno. But he didn’t. He “turned it over to some other people,” as he told the Post. I give him credit for fessing up to his failure when he said in a recent statement, “I wish I had done more.” But that only goes so far.

Listen, I’m not saying spit on the guy’s grave. And I’m not suggesting that we should fail to acknowledge the positive contributions that Paterno made over the years, but we need to keep things in perspective. The lowering of a flag is something that should be reserved for the death of a war hero, a fallen police officer, a head of state, a truly “outstanding American.” Not a football coach in the middle of a sickening sex-abuse scandal. Next time, Governor Corbett, flowers will suffice.