Last night I was tinkering with some software for my digital camera and, as can happen, I got sidetracked looking at various photos from the last four years or so. There were plenty of family pictures there, lots of nature shots from various hikes, my 30th birthday in Vegas, and of course road trips following the Buckeyes to the different Big Ten venues. Some of the nicest of those are from my trip to Happy Valley in November of 2009. There’s one of the sunrise over Mt. Nittany , the frost still on the ground catching the sun’s rays. There’s my tailgating tent, standing proudly in hostile territory. There’s a good one of Beaver Stadium too, but one picture stands out.
It’s the statue of Joe Paterno out in front of the stadium. It is the legendary coach leading his team onto the field on some fall Saturday sometime in the four decades prior to my being there. Currently what is catching my eye is the quote from Paterno that is on the wall behind the statue. It says; “They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone, I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach”. Pause…..the words weigh heavy on me even as I’m writing this. In the fall of 2009, this was an inspiring yet humble quote from a man who had given more than half of his life to one university. That was when he was still prowling the Penn State sidelines. That was before he lost his fight with lung cancer. That was when Jerry Sandusky was just the former defensive coordinator for the Nittany Lions, and before JoePa, being embroiled in the ensuing controversy, was fired from the position he had held longer than a lot of us have been alive.
When the Sandusky scandal broke nationally, it was too much to even consider the idea that Paterno could have known. I cursed the media that descended on State College, and I boiled as I watched the press conference where they fired him. And to do so over the phone was shameful. I hated Mike Mcqueary for not going to the police instead of going to Paterno’s home with the story of what he’d seen. Even still, hadn’t Joe done his duty by reporting Mcqueary’s story to his boss?
What I’m struggling with now, are the e-mails that have come to the forefront of this case. There is certainly nothing wrong with a coach being consulted about punishment for members of his team. In fact it would be strange if he weren’t. What these e-mails seem to imply though, or at least the spin that the national media is giving them is that Paterno himself was the ultimate authority at Penn State. If this is true, it certainly paints a picture of what can go wrong at a big time football school when power is unchecked. Even without the sexual abuse case, this would still reflect poorly on the university. With accusations of assaults by players seemingly swept under the rug. When will sports programs learn that “internally” isn’t always the best way to handle problems. This thinking has wreaked havoc on many schools through the years. If Joe truly was the man in charge of all things football related, then it’s certainly going to be hard to keep claiming he was unaware of what was happening with Sandusky.
Also at issue here is the fact that Paterno has passed away. He has no way to defend himself. His family is left to watch his name get smeared on a daily basis while still trying to grieve. I understand that even though he’s gone, the abuse victims still live with their pain each day, and I would never want to diminish that fact. But is tearing Joe Paterno apart and inflicting emotional distress on his family really doing anything to help? Does it soothe in any way the multiple wounds this situation has opened? And yes, I am aware that even as I admonish those keeping this story in the forefront, by writing this I am no better.
In this country you are innocent until proven guilty. In this case I’ll probably never wholeheartedly believe Paterno knew what was happening unless I see something concrete maybe in his own handwriting acknowledging prior knowledge. Even then I would have trouble believing it wasn’t forged. This is just one of those situations where my heart still wants to believe that JoePa really didn’t know what was going on. It honestly makes me dislike myself for entertaining the notion that he did. But my eyes and ears seem intent on forcing doubt into my head. It seems such a tragedy that by his own inaction in this case, Joe Paterno could possibly leave Penn State in worse shape than 40 some years of dedicated service can make up for.