A Death in Happy Valley
So, Joe Paterno is dead. This time for sure. I was a bit surprised when both ESPN Radio and FoxSportsRadio interrupted their programming and adopted the tones one imagines Radio Moscow took when Stalin died. It was nearly Cronkite telling the nation JFK had passed.
This isn’t going to be one of those bitter reflections about a man who ended a notable sporting life with a sour revelation of weakness followed by an ignominious dismissal. Nor is this going to be a mediation about what a great guy JoePa was (although there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest he was). That’s because I didn’t really have a sense for the man. His teams won a lot of football games, to be sure. He seemed like an amusing and cantankerousness old dude. But, one way or the other, he didn’t really move my meter like, say, his contemporary Al McGuire did. So you shouldn’t take what follows as an apology for the clay feet that were revealed toward the end of Paterno’s life.
It certainly does seem he should have done more to intervene when the sordid Sandusky business came to his attention. Paterno even said as much in his last weeks. But it is easy for us to sit where we do and pass judgment, confident in our minds that we would have heroically intervened and brought that reprobate to justice. Thinking that way feels very good; moral superiority will do that. And perhaps the best thing that comes of this episode is in giving us a dry run, a test case, so that if we are confronted with something similar some day we might act in a noble manner and not passively as Paterno did.
However, I don’t think the taint that has come upon the now deceased coach is altogether merited. Confronted with the facts, he did was he was supposed to do. We now can look at the situation clinically and come to the verdict that he didn’t do enough. That seems to be right, but in the context of the moment, I imagine things looked very different to JoePa. I mean, it’s not like he ignored the matter–he kicked it upstream, as he should have. If we are honest with ourselves, many of us on our jobs would likely have done the same thing. A few of us might have done more, just as some might have looked the other way entirely. We’d all like to think we are Karen Silkwood, but few of us are.
So I don’t think the scorn heaped on Paterno that so colored the coda of Jeremy Schaap’s sanctimonious obit on ESPN Radio this morning was appropriate. Nor do I believe that Paterno should have gotten the boot at Penn State as the result of his actions in the Sandusky affair. (JoePa should have been eased out years ago because coaches over 80 should move on in a dignified manner to the next phase of their lives.) The saddest part of all this — beyond the likely irreparable damage done to the abused boys — is that his failure to live up to our idealized expectations has taken the shine off of what otherwise seems to have been a remarkable life and a noteworthy career.