Joe Paterno: Not a Hero

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America, you have misplaced your heroes.

Contrary to popular opinion, Joe Paterno is not one of them.

He is the 84-year-old coach of a football team whose most inspirational quotes have nothing to do with character and integrity and everything to do with being good at football. That’s fine. That’s what he does. And in his 60 or so years with Penn State University, he did that job and did it well.

But somewhere in the midst of his career (namely in his 46-year run as the head coach of the Nittany Lions), Paterno was elevated to hero status.

A hero is “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.”

When you read that definition, is Joe Paterno someone who comes to mind? Let’s pretend for a fleeting second that this whole child abuse scandal never even happened. Does Joe Paterno — Coach Joe Paterno — still fit that description? Distinguished courage? Brave deeds? Noble qualities? Can you wholeheartedly and honestly say that Joe Paterno meets those standards? As a college football coach? I don’t think so.

And yet he is respected, regarded, and revered as a great man — not simply in the realm of collegiate athletics, mind you, but in this country. He is an icon and, yes, a hero.

That’s misplaced.

Don’t get me wrong, if he was your coach at some point in your life, then he probably is your hero. Your hero. For a legitimate reason. He probably made you a better, more disciplined, more focused football player. He might have led you to a championship. Maybe a bowl game. Great. That’s awesome, actually. It really is.

But, as a coach, Paterno didn’t demonstrate distinguished courage, brave deeds, and noble qualities. Other than maybe calling a risky, against-all-odds play to win a game or several. That still doesn’t make him a hero.

Trust me, folks. If you view Paterno as a hero in any regard, you’re misplacing your heroes. I promise you.

“This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

That is what Paterno said a few days after the arrest of his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky (but before he’d been fired). Well, it’s what was attributed to him in a statement that was orchestrated by his PR person.

What confuses me is that what Paterno is, in essence, saying is that he has developed some sort of clarity about the situation, now that he can look back in hindsight. Because, at the time that a grad student came to him and informed him that he saw Sandusky molesting a child, it didn’t seem like a big deal? Paterno wasn’t thinking clearly? Paterno didn’t believe that was possible?

Let’s re-state this. A grad student goes to Paterno, presumably distressed, scared, confused, mortified, at reportedly witnessing  Sandusky (Paterno’s colleague, associate, peer, and likely friend) raping a young boy. On campus. In the football team’s locker room shower. Paterno’s locker room shower.

After receiving this news, Paterno — a man described as a “devout Catholic” — informed his superior that a “distraught” grad student had witnessed “something of a sexual nature” in the locker room between Sandusky and a child. It seems odd that McQueary reported the actual facts to his father, two administrators, and the grand jury, but never (according to Paterno) told Paterno exactly what he saw.

Paterno told an administrator that “something” had taken place, which was his “obligation,” per Penn State policy. Two administrators got around to questioning McQueary about the assault about 10 days later. He told them what he witnessed, that he had seen Sandusky rape a child. The end result of their inquiry? They took Sandusky’s locker room keys. Period.

Paterno, it appears, did nothing else. Nothing. Literally nothing.

Now, nine years and who knows how many victims later, he claims that he wishes he had done more.

Does Paterno wish he had done more because the crimes (and Paterno’s failure to act) have now become public? After all, a man almost universally considered a leader and a hero should have recognized the moral obligation to act upon learning that his colleague was reportedly seen raping a child in his team’s locker room. That child, that possible victim, just may have been sacrificed on the altar of the Penn State football program. Countless others may have been as well.

Let’s not ignore that grad student, Mike McQueary, who was 28 at the time. Do you know what happened to him, after he didn’t help the child who he saw being raped? He went on to become an offensive coach for…the Nittany Lions. It’s not as though he’s unqualified, of course; he was a record-setting quarterback for the team in the ’90s.

So, McQueary says he witnessed Sandusky raping a young child in the locker room, did nothing to help the child and, it appears, reached out to one person. Joe Paterno. Nothing ever happened and now McQueary is a coach. The Penn State football program is a peculiar environment, to say the least.

It’s that peculiar environment, where Joe Paterno is a hero above reproach, where students poured into the streets and began rioting after Paterno was fired. Rioting.

They literally rioted.

One woman, though, showed up with a sign that read, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” That’s somewhat closer to the reality of the situation.

I’ll go one further, though, and assert that Joe Paterno is not a good man. And he’s surely not someone to be rioting over.

David Haugh, of the Chicago Tribune wrote an excellent opinion piece, “Penn State’s Paterno deserves no pity.” Readers, however, weren’t completely receptive to that sentiment. One commented, “Coach Joe was not the criminal and deserves better.”

Another said, “The people who WERE in charge and SHOULD have acted clearly dropped the ball and now face – appropriately – criminal charges. Using the deplorable acts of a deplorable man to drag a great man like Joe Paterno and a model football program through the mud is also deplorable.”

The same day, Jim Litke, of the Boston Globe, wrote a column that argued “They did Paterno wrong.” After agreeing that Paterno’s silence on Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of children was “unconscionable,” he went on to say:

But it doesn’t erase all the things Paterno has done over the course of a lifetime. Just the opposite is true. On balance, all that good should be enough to earn him an opportunity to try and erase the stain — as nauseating and hurtful as a sin of omission can ever be — that has obscured everything else about the man.

I disagree.

As the investigations proceed, it’s likely that we’ll learn lots of people are at fault, and none of them deserve to be part of the Penn State machine. This story is sure to get bigger and uglier and more horrific. At present, the focus is on Joe Paterno — appropriately and accurately, I might add — because he had a duty to act. OK, OK, not “legally.” But as a leader, a hero — or how about a human being? — he had an obligation to do the right thing.

He had a duty to look beyond his beloved football program and Penn State, to stand up for what was right. To exhibit courage and character and integrity, in spite of the consequences. The simple fact that he did not — at the single moment when his leadership was most needed — makes him a coward.

Certainly not a hero.

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  1. ashleigh walls says

    THANK YOU for this. I have been scratching my head and reading every article to see if I MISSED something completely important that would make these people think that he is a hero. I do not understand these students and their logic. Regardless of what he did as a coach he should have done MORE with that information he received. Not acceptable at all in my book.

  2. says

    Thanks, Ashleigh. Being in the Philadelphia area, this is ALL that is being talked about here. Seriously. And, wow, I am dumbfounded at people’s opinions about this and how Joe Paterno did nothing wrong. He’s not a lackey or just a run-of-the-mill employee at PSU. He’s bigger than life and he’s treated as such. For that reason, he a) was not in the dark about all this and b) had the means, power, and influence to make something happen, if he wanted it to.
    Kristin recently posted..Who Needs Some Holiday CA$H??My Profile

  3. says

    Mike McQueary actually called his father right after he witnessed the locker room incident. He asked his father what he should do and was told “Get the Hell out of there.” So many, many people knew about this and did nothing. All because of their football team.

    Paterno was told later that day (that the incident occurred on)and reported it to his officials the NEXT day. That speaks volumes on his character right there.

    Why was Sandusky even in the locker room in 2002? He wasn’t an employee, so Paterno should know who is in his locker rooms at all times. Paterno did have the power to demand that man never be allowed on his campus, but he didn’t even do that.

    You should look into The Second Mile. Paterno sits on that board, unless my information is wrong. That is the same group that Sandusky volunteered for. It is a children’s group. They were told of Sandusky’s behavior and said it’d be good therapy for him to work around children. So there is no doubt in my mind that Paterno did NOT know he was abusing children, which he is now claiming.

    The thing people need to realize is that Paterno isn’t the only one being punished. Everyone is acting like he’s a scapegoat or something, when others were fired as well.

    Great blog!

  4. Ellen Moore says

    Amen! I cannot understand how people can worship other people. Paterno may have been a great football coach, but he is an ordinary person, capable of wrong-doing, with feet of clay. He had football as his main focus and nothing was going to impede his program. I imagine the people rioting to show their support, and isn’t that an odd way to show support, would react quite differently if it had been their child. They would probably still riot, though.

    Thank you for expressing your thoughts, and mine, so well.

  5. Tiffany says

    Thanks for speaking up about this and I wholeheartedly agree. Who if not one of the most influential men in college football and Im sure your state to stand up for a child. I would like to think its our responsibility as adults, parents and people of this planet to help protect children no matter what. The one sign you spoke of says it all “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”.

  6. Lisa L says

    I don’t usually watch this news since it just depresses me. But I overheard this as my husband had it on. I was confused as to why students were gathered outside to show support for Paterno. HUH?! Why is he such a hero? Because he’s a great coach? Who cares who you are. What if this was his son? You did all you could? REALLY?! It makes me sick to think how many poor children suffered when it could have been stopped right there. Hero my @ss. As for the students..WOW..go do something productive. This is why I dont usually watch the news!

  7. Anne Taylor says

    As a Canadian woman watching this, I really had no idea who any of the people involved in this were, but as soon as I heard the story I was literally sickened by the actions and non actions of these poor excuses for men.

    Then I see the students rioting and I became enraged at the ignorance of them all.

    I truly doubt any of these young people would be out in the streets “showing support” for this coach if it were one of their children being raped in the locker room.

    society truly sucks sometimes and ignorance truly seems to be bliss

  8. says

    I don’t understand why these incidents were not reported to law enforcement agencies and children’s services. If you see a child being harmed anywhere else in this country, you report it to those agencies, has Penn State somehow declared the campus to be its own country? I’m abhorred at the idea that college students would riot in support of someone who condoned child sexual assault. He knew of it and he did nothing, thus in my mind he let it continue.

    Coming from Ohio and being an Ohio State alumnus, I have experienced first hand the type of hero worship that surrounds certain sports figures. You are very right, Kristin, we have misplaced our heroes. No one seems to mind if a sports figure has morals or ethics if they can handle the ball well. Having talent doesn’t make one a hero, right choices make one a hero.

  9. L W says

    I guarantee not one human being who has ever been regarded as a “hero” ever considerend themselves as such. We have a sense of duty and respond as such when the time comes, and we sometimes get heralded as such. I know without question, there is NO HUMAN who walks among us who at a time of weakness or desparation does takes action or inaction that they themselves would not find “heroic.” So what you are saying is that one moment of inactiion qualifies this person as a “non hero.” I call BS. I’m willing to bet his biggest regret is that the college administration who said they would “take care of the problem” did much less than Joe Pa felt warranted or felt obligated to do at a personal level. There are many details surrounding this we don’t know… and it sickens me that we as a society jump to what is often the wrong conclusion. A tragedy did indeed occur, but the media is out to Vilafy everyone they can… WHY… cuz it sells the NEWS… I swear all the US of A has become is a land of hype and fear. Sad.. and to think of all who have served and died serving this great country… I wonder how many are rolling in their graves… how many wish they could come out of their gentle resting to re-right this wayward ship? Happy Veterans Day…

  10. says

    I beg to differ. This not ONE moment of inaction. This is years…YEARS…of enabling and looking the other way and hiding the truth for the sake of the sacred cow: the football team. This was not one moment.

    I agree, there are many details we don’t know. And when they are made public, I doubt they will show we all “jumped to the wrong conclusion.” I’m not jumping to conclusions. I read the Grand Jury Presentment and have listened, watched, and read everything since this has hit the news. I am going from testimony, the record, and the facts.

    This isn’t about hype and fear…it’s about someone who was looked to as a leader and a hero letting EVERYONE down. And people still don’t get that.

    My grandfather was a veteran and a war hero (WWII). He received the Bronze Star for his bravery at the Battle of the Bulge, when he saved his fellow soldiers. He never thought of himself as such. He also made the right choices and did the right thing. Always. Regardless of what the consequences were. That’s a hero.
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  11. Jayne says

    I have been ranting…literally ranting…about this since I heard about it. What in the world has happened to our country where we would be angry that a football coach got fired for allowing a man to continue to rape children? It speaks to a larger problem in the US…maybe the world although I don’t follow sports outside the US…of placing people who can toss a ball on some kind of pedestal and treating them like a god. It’s disgusting.

    I hope every single person who knew about this…every adult who even SUSPECTED something but did nothing…is brought to light and shamed for their inaction. Some of them deserve charges, too. I would put McQueary and Paterno in that camp.

    And his good outweighs his bad? What? We grade reprehensible behavior on a curve, now? He’s a football coach for crying out loud. Perhaps a good football coach…perhaps a great football coach…but he’s still just a freaking coach.

  12. Jayne says

    And I’ll add…if I would have been the one to see what McQueary saw, I’d have found the nearest weapon handy…baseball bat or something similar…and I’d have beat that old man to a bloody pulp. I certainly wouldn’t have walked away. I would have GLADLY gone to jail to protect that kid.

  13. says

    Couldn’t agree more, Jayne!!! Thank you for weighing in! I don’t know what precisely I would have done had I seen a child being raped by a grown man (well, by anyone, for that matter). But I know for a fact that I’d ACT. I’d do something. I surely wouldn’t turn my back and walk away. That’s disgusting. A lot of Paterno supporters like to pose the question, “What would YOU have done?” and suggest that any ordinary individual wouldn’t have jumped to heroics. I don’t think it’s heroics to help a child. I think it’s basic human dignity and compassion. I’m silly that way.

    Local news JUST broke a story that a S.C. high school senior claims he was being recruited by PSU (namely, McQueary) and, in the spring, one of the recruiters came down to watch him play. He says the recruiter was…Jerry Sandusky.

    If that is true…WOW. Just wow. That is HUGE.

    McQueary is on administrative leave as of today. There’s a question of whether he can be fired because of the “whistleblower” law. I’m pretty sure there’s a way around that. For one thing, the letter of the law states that a person who reports wrongdoing in GOOD FAITH cannot be fired BECAUSE he made the report. I don’t think he acted in good faith, but they wouldn’t be firing him for blowing the whistle. It would be for not blowing it loud enough.
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    • Jayne says

      I thought Sandusky was completely out of the Penn State program?

      And I don’t want to hear any of the “good faith” garbage. “Good faith” would have been helping a child not protecting your job, your school, your sports program, and yourself.

      Is it my imagination or do college sports seem to have more scandals than pros?

      • says

        Sandusky was NEVER out of the program. He’s had an office, keys, total access…he ran youth football camps at a satellite PSU campus in the summers up til, I believe, 2009?

        Word has it he was on campus as recently as last week, working out. Oh yeah, it’s not a pretty picture. And, might I add, this investigation has gone on for TWO years. TWO. So, you would think that PSU officials wouldn’t act like this came as such a shock.

        Good faith…yeah, that’s not a notion I would equate with PSU.
        Kristin recently posted..Who Needs Some Holiday CA$H??My Profile

  14. Julie says

    This is by far one of the sickest things I can hear and read about …they should all be fired and let us beat the CRAP out of them!!!What a bunch of IDIOTS..thanks for posting so I can rant we need to protect our children from evil people, like all of these men and I am afraid we have not heard all that there is to hear about this …

  15. says

    You know, I was in a similar position once. I didn’t walk in on a child being raped, but I did change the diaper of a baby who wasn’t yet two years old and discovered that she was bleeding vaginally. I worked in a child care center and the director wanted me to call the parents first before I reported it. Anyone who works with children is a mandated reporter, they are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse. I would assume that is the same for someone on the board of an organization to help underprivileged children. I walked right on past my center director and called both children’s services and the police. Then I vomited. There was no decision involved for me, no wanting to keep my job, all I wanted to do was help that baby.

  16. says

    Wow, Jessica. Thanks for sharing that. How horrific. But, I think you reacted exactly like a “normal” person would and should. How awful. Wow. And to suggest you call the parents first? Ummmm…why would you do that? Geez.

    It’s not hard to report child abuse to the authorities. There’s a reason for that. No excuse for anyone, for any reason.
    Kristin recently posted..Do you need $200 to shop at Target? YES!My Profile

  17. TishTash says

    Re Mr. Litke: It is not argued that Paterno has done much good in his life. However, that is not being erased by his firing. It is — for the time being — erased by his and others’ shocking sense of self-delusion that tolerating repeated sexual offenses against minors was acceptable. As we distance ourselves from these events, and the sting of proximity to these acts fade closer relatively to his good deeds over his lifetime, we can better assess the whole picture. But while these things continue to fester, his present presence is akin to a hot poker being jabbed in the eye — repeatedly.

  18. Catie Richards says

    Thank YOU! I have actually felt a sense of embarrassment today about the way people are mourning this man and calling him a “hero”. WAKE UP!!!
    I am sad today, but not for Paterno or his fans. I’m sad for the victims today that are watching as people are literally crying over this “hero” that did next to nothing to help them get out of the unthinkable situation that they were in.
    It’s all very hard for me to stomach.

    • says

      Thank you, Catie. Your comment means a lot, it really does. I’ve actually gotten more negative feedback (not as comments, thankfully) today regarding this article, as some consider it inappropriate or disrespectful in light of his death. I don’t think his death negates his wrongdoing/inaction or absolves him of responsibility toward those victims. I don’t mean to diminish the suffering he and his family endured over the last two months with his illness and whatnot…but let’s not forget what he did and didn’t do for children who needed a leader/hero over the years.
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  19. Kristy Babcock says

    Thank you! This is exactly what I was thinking! Joe Paterno is no hero. He may as well have molested those children his self as far as I’m concerned. I’m sorry to hear of his death, but here? Please.

  20. says

    How long did it take you to dig out that picture of Paterno and Sandusky? They both look pretty young! You could probably dig up photos about anyone with Sandusky. Anyway, this all is just your meager opinion not a fact! you don’t say too much on Sandusky–more on Paterno? Do you know where Sandusky is incarcerated? White collar prison? Is he among regular prisoners? How come you’re not following this? Is it b/c paterno is dead and Sandusky isn’t? You’re totally disgusting!!!! Yes, more could have been done by everyone ESPECIALLY WHEN IT ALL BEGAN! When is Corbett being put out of office?

    • says

      What is your problem, Pat? I’m totally disgusting? You’re a total jackass. It didn’t take too long to “dig out” that photo, since it’s EVERYWHERE. It’s from ’99, I believe. This is a BLOG. Not a newspaper. Some is my opinion and some are facts. I would refer to this as an editorial.

      Moving on…the title of this “editorial” is “Joe Paterno: Not a Hero,” so ummmmmmm YEAH, I speak more about Paterno in this piece than I do about Sandusky because, well, it’s about PATERNO.

      Sandusky, last I heard, was incarcerated in Centre County Prison, not a white collar prison, because he didn’t commit white collar crimes. He’s a pedophile, not an embezzler. I’m not sure if he’s in GP, because I don’t work there. I doubt it, given his a) status and b) crimes. I would be writing about this more often if I weren’t so ill for the last few months.

      Do me a favor. If you think I’m “totally disgusting” (which is odd, since I’m offering commentary on a child molester and his enablers, not actually doing any of the crap these jerks did), take a hike. No one is forcing you to read this.

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