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 (and, while we’re at it, what the heck, let’s pretend that children were never abused). 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.
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 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 and (presumably) friend was seen raping a child in his team’s locker room. That child was sacrificed on the altar of the Penn State football program. Countless others were 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 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.“
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 one moment when his leadership was most needed — makes him a coward.
Not a hero.