If there's one generalization that I've found applies to everyone in life, it's that no one truly knows how to deal with death. There really is no right way to address it, and a lot of times, people will only focus on the positive aspects of a person's life as a sort of memorial. On the one hand, this speaks to the kindness of human nature, that we can look beyond the faults and issues of a person and focus on what made others like them. It's a well-intentioned way to look a person posthumously, but often it's often a dangerously short-sighted tactic as well. Often, the media will whitewash any controversial aspects of a person's life, probably because they don't want to seem insensitive to the dead or because they don't want to insult the next of kin. When Michael Jackson and Jerry Falwell died and were treated like flawless, exceptional human beings, it rang hollow. Everyone has faults, and when those faults are as obvious as child molestation allegations (in Jackson's case) or blaming 9/11 on women and gay people (in Falwell's case), not mentioning their flaws is not only insensitive in how biased it is, it's unethical.
Which is how I felt over the swooning that took place when Joe Paterno died. If his former players and if the current Penn State students want to proselytize what a great man he was, they have to at least acknowledge why someone so otherwise beloved and respected had to be fired in disgrace. To just circle around the same anecdotes of leadership and courage without mentioning that his lack of principle allowed dozens of children to get raped, it's just not an accurate portrayal. He isn't Santa Claus. He is a three-dimensional, flawed human being. And yet when I watched the coverage of his funeral procession on ESPN the other day, I found myself on the verge of drop-kicking my television. Not once was the Jerry Sandusky fiasco mentioned. Not once, in a segment that featured tears and appraisals and compliments of him, was there even an inference of the scandal that got him fired. And in what was a recap of the man's life, it needed to be there. It needed to be shown that this too was a part of the man, myth and legend; to just bypass it entirely was disgraceful.
Now look, I'm not going to pretend that Paterno didn't do a lot of good in his previous fifty years at Penn State -- because that'd be wrong too. He did a lot of good things for the university. He helped a lot of inner-city kids, he preached ethics, he showed a compassion and enthusiasm that propelled the school from a Podunk nothing to a college football powerhouse in the time he was there. The school today wouldn't be nearly as prominent as it is now without him, and that's partly because he contributed millions of dollars to the campus over the years. These things are by no means meaningless.... BUT...
Anyone who uses that as an excuse to overlook his transgressions is delusional. To me, what Paterno did on the football field was a trifle. It was his job, and people loved him primarily because he was good at it. But no one in their wildest dreams has the right to claim that what he did as the football coach should supersede the terrible things he looked the other way on. If Joe Paterno really was a great man, what kind of standards are we using to overlook something so horrendous? How can he be a great person when all his supporters won't even discuss his culpability in the scandal? How is that he has something so awful on his resume that can't possibly hold up to scrutiny? How can he be great, but be so wrong so often with only the pithiest traces of repentance?
These questions need to be asked, because quite frankly, what Paterno did or didn't do with Sandusky is a thousand times more significant than what he did on the football field, and because I feel that he never even owned up to his transgressions, yes, I think that does trump everything he did in the previous fifty years. Any sort of character he showed as a man of the people was, to me, ultimately overridden by the fact that he showed more deference to football than to little kids, and that he possibly even lied about his knowledge of it in his final days. The way Paterno handled Jerry Sandusky can't be look at as an aberration, not when it went on for so long -- especially when it's factored in that what Paterno claimed he knew in a grand jury testimony and what he told Sally Jenkins he knew a few weeks prior to his death are disturbingly inconsistent. I would go as far as to say that it's almost impossible to look at both statements he made and not conclude that in at least one instance, the man was lying.
The man people are now once again cherishing as though the scandal never happened.
"Jerry Sandusky looks terrific," M.G. Missanelli wrote in the 2007 book: The Perfect Season: How Penn State Came to Stop a Hurricane and Win a National Football Championship. "He's still tall, sinewy, and vascular, even if the hair is a little grayer and thinner -- a man in full in the flowing twilight of his life. At one time ambition burned at him inside to become a head football coach somewhere ... In 1998, Sandusky traded in his hundred yards for The Second Mile permanently. He resigned as PSU's defensive coordinator that spring, stunning Nittany Lions fans who had come to rely on his impenetrable defenses and his notable contributions to Penn State's becoming nationally known as Linebacker U. At the time, there were whispers that Sandusky and Paterno, two strong-willed men who clashed often over the years, could no longer coexist. Stories were rampant that Paterno had given a vacuous promise to Sandusky that he'd be the next Penn State coach. As far back as 1987, pregame stories of the Fiesta Bowl had broached the subject. By 1998 speculation was that Sandusky was simply tired of waiting for the old man to go.
"Sandusky says that today he doesn't socialize with Paterno, but that's no big deal, he says, since the two men aren't the socializing type anyway. The last time he saw Joe, he happened to be driving on campus, looking for a parking space near the football offices en route to a workout. As he made a turn, he nearly bumped into a man walking through the lot. It was Paterno. He rolled down the window. They had a conversation. They vowed to get together soon. A vapid promise men often make to other men they have no plans to visit any time soon. That's just the way things work sometimes."
No aspect of the Jerry Sandusky scandal has been more scrutinized than Joe Paterno's relationship with him, and how much he really knew about his assistant coach's private life. No man was tethered longer to Paterno's side than Sandusky, who worked on the Penn State sideline as an assistant in some capacity for over 30 years. But in 1999, Sandusky suddenly retired, claiming that he wanted to dedicate himself full-time to his Second Mile Charity. At the time, many were baffled why someone so determined to become a head coach would not only abandon his post at Penn State, but give up coaching altogether.
Most believed that he had truly found his calling with The Second Mile program, which Sandusky had created in 1977 under the guise of helping needy children. However, the revelation that in 1998, Jerry Sandusky was found to have inappropriately touched an 11-year-old boy -- referred to as Victim 6 in the recent grand jury report -- in a Penn State shower raises questions as to how much Paterno knew at the time. A six-week police report was conducted, and although Sandusky was caught saying, "I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness from you. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead," to the boy's mother in a sting, the case was eventually dropped on the grounds that there wasn't enough evidence.
The police report was never made public until the recent grand jury report on Sandusky in 2011, and to suggest that Paterno had any knowledge of Sandusky's actions to this point would be pure speculation. However, the fact that Sandusky's sudden sabbatical from football coincided with a campus police investigation on whether or not he had molested a child should raise some eyebrows, not to mention that it seems highly dubious that word of Sandusky's incident would have never reached the ears of Joe Paterno -- the most important figure at Penn State -- while somehow managing to reach the ears of Gary Schultz, the Vice President of business and finance at Penn State.
But one thing is clear: Joe Paterno had to have known by 2002 what kind of a man Sandusky was. Even if he was completely oblivious to it all, even if he missed all the signs, even if he never heard a single word or rumor or allegation from anyone, it's indisputable that in 2002 at the very latest, Paterno learned that Sandusky wasn't the sort of man who should be around kids on a regular basis. It was in that year that a visibly-shaken Mike McQueary went into his office and told him that he had seen Sandusky -- who still had full visitation rights at the school -- anally-raping a child. According to Joe Paterno's testimony in 2011, he then told Tim Curley, the school's athletic director, that "the grad assistant [McQueary] had seen Jerry Sandusky in the Lasch Building showers fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy."
What happened then is the most shameful part of the whole ordeal. Despite knowledge of what had happened, neither Paterno nor McQueary nor Schultz nor Curley nor school president Graham Spanier ever called the police, or went to the media, or did anything in their power to prevent Sandusky from molesting another child. They never even informed his associates at The Second Mile, or even banned him from the premises. The only action the school took against Sandusky -- who then wasn't even an active employee at the school -- was to ban him from bringing children onto the campus, a penalty that wasn't even enforced. Sandusky held football camps at the Penn State campus in Erie, Pennsylvania all the way up to 2008, and in 2007, he was even plucked to be the commencement speaker at Penn State's College of Health and Human Development.
Yes, Joe Paterno went to his superiors. Legally he did nothing wrong. But as a man with the responsibility of protecting innocent children, JoePa failed. For nine years he sat on that information. With all his power and influence, Paterno could have had Sandusky in jail with little more than a flick of his wrists. He could've informed the media. He could've done something, anything, to make sure that Sandusky wasn't allowed to be near a child again. Instead, he did nothing. Like so many others at Penn State, for no explicable reason, he tolerated a pedophile in the school's name being a free man, attending school functions, even showing up on main campus now and then again. When I read that Paterno would even engage in small talk with Sandusky at the school parking lot, it's impossible for me to harbor any respect for the man. It's one thing to be fooled and left unaware of what someone near you is doing; it's something else entirely to know what that person had done, and to do nothing about it. For Paterno to run into Sandusky and not want to punch him, or call security, or walk away in disgust, let alone not sprinting to the first police officer in sight to get him removed immediately, is a revolting lack of dignity. He had nine years to grow a spine. But he did nothing.
There was a cover-up at Penn State, one so far reaching that even though Sandusky's indiscretion in 2002 was known about from the head of the athletic program to the president of the university, nothing happened to him. He was protected, and given Paterno's brazen unwillingness to ever speak up about him, given Sandusky's close affiliation to him and the football program over the years, and given a 2011 Wall Street Journal article where the school's standards and conduct officer complained in a 2005 email that Paterno wanted his football players to be given preferential treatment over regular students, and it's hard to see why Paterno wouldn't have been involved as well -- nor does he deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Over the last decade, Greg Mortenson has become one of the best-selling nonfiction authors in the world. Mortenson wrote books such as Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools where the mountain climber preached the necessity of educating women, while claiming that his charity organization -- the Central Asia Institute -- had overseen the construction of hundreds of schools in impoverished nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. His books were wildly successful, enough so that when Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, he donated $100,000 of his prize money to Mortenson's foundation.
There was just one problem. Mortenson was fraud, or at least mostly a fraud.
It turned out that he really had built a lot of schools overseas. He really had helped thousands of young kids get educated, especially young girls. However, significant portions of his claims were greatly exaggerated, if not completely fabricated. Some of the schools he claimed to have built were being used as warehouses; some didn't exist at all. A 60 Minutes investigation even discovered that one of the most harrowing tales in his books, that he had been kidnapped by members of the Taliban, had been completely manufactured. The men Mortenson described as terrorists were really just businessmen.
Now, Mortenson has very little credibility. There's no question that if asked to classify him, people would have no trouble describing him as a liar, a manipulator, a swindler, and someone who is not to be trusted. Again, a fraud. And yet, if I asked for the same Q-rating of Joe Paterno, there's also no question that I'd get a decidedly different reaction. Which is weird. After all, for all the good things Paterno may have done in his life, he never did anything as good as what Mortenson did; JoePa never flew to war-torn Afghanistan under the threat of terrorism and had schools built for destitute children. And at the same time, as greasy as Mortenson might have been, as despicable as he was to embellish tales of charity for the sake of increasing his book sales, he never did anything as reprehensible as what Paterno did. Compared to looking the other way on a child molester, making up stories isn't so bad.
So why is there such a difference in reaction? How come there's very little contention over the wrong-doing of someone like Mortenson, whereas with Paterno, there are still people praising him like he's the white Mahatma Ganghi? Even before he died, there was a notable hesitance to condemn this man who, again, was willing to have pleasant conversations with a child molester in a school parking lot. And now that he's dead, he's once again being treated like a god, as though his death somehow makes up for all the lives he ruined when he didn't go to the police or show the slightest bit of moral righteousness.
The difference has puzzled me these last few days, and even though the reason is actually quite transparent, that doesn't make it any less confusing. If there's any generalization why Jerry Sandusky was allowed to do what he did for as long as he did, it's that football was valued to such a ridiculous extent at Penn State that when forced to make a critical humans right issue, everyone who could have made a difference bowed to the almighty pigskin and did nothing. Whether it was Paterno, or Schultz, or Curley, or McQueary or Spanier, not one of them spoke up about the shower incident. Not one of them had the courage or decency to value a kid's safety over the potential backlash of the football program, so they went on pretending that nothing ever happened.
At first, I thought that this gross lack of perspective was attributable only to Penn State, where the student body was so upset over Paterno's firing that they formed a vigil around his house the night he was fired. But the more I watched the reaction to his death, and the more I watched analysts on ESPN pretending that the whole Sandusky-thing never happened, the more I realized that the issue at hand -- the preferential treatment of sports over everything -- was endemic even to the media.
In a way it makes sense. To most of us, sports are like wrestling. We see it as a distraction to everyday life, and the athletes we follow are built up in black-or-white, hate-'em or love-'em proportions, so that someone like Eli Manning can't just be a guy who plays football for a living -- he has to be an annoying brat too. Jay Cutler? A whiny bitch. Ron Artest? A lunatic. Armando Gallaraga? The classiest man alive. John Rocker? A monster. There's very little nuance or gray area, but the athletes we love or hate are loved and hated in a very subjective, very one-sided way, and any attempt to derail these opinions are usually disregarded.
Which is what makes the treatment of Joe Paterno so ridiculous. It's bad enough that pundits like Dick Vital can go on TV and talk about what a great man Paterno was while admitting that he never actually met him (!), but the level to which Paterno has been portrayed is downright laughable, even without considering the Sandusky ordeal. The man Penn State students are crying over literally doesn't exist. In reality, Paterno was a pleasant guy with an amazing football record who fucked up royally on some very important issues. But the way people are referring to him, you'd think he parted the Red Sea, discovered America and invented the G-Spot. It'd be funny to watch these grown men gush about his football wins like they were the most important things in the universe if it wasn't so goddamn sad. Essentially, they're worshiping an imaginary figure, as though he had been lifted right out of a Greg Mortenson book. The Paterno they mourn was a perfect coach, a perfect gentleman, a man with no flaws or shortcomings who should have never been fired and who was ultimately betrayed by his own university. They don't mention what Paterno didn't do with Sandusky because they want to keep the dream alive -- the dream that he really was some larger-than-life, inhumanly great man of the people.
Unfortunately, this is the level of reasoning that takes place when the men at the center of it all are treated like superheroes. The sad truth is that on Joe Paterno's watch, the worst human rights scandal in the history of college sports took place, and for at least nine years, Paterno had knowledge of prior incidents and did nothing. It's immensely easy to write what many have been writing, that Joe Paterno's legacy as a football coach shouldn't be completely smothered by the Sandusky fiasco. They both need to be mentioned, both the good parts and the bad parts. But not even fifty years of service can marginalize the degree to which he failed in the final years of his life.
Sandusky wasn't some Sam Hurd-type walk-on with barely any connection to the program -- for 32 years, he was an assistant under Paterno, and he used his status as the head of "Linebacker U" to create The Second Mile, which enabled him to molest as many kids as possible. Sandusky is facing over 50 counts of child molestation, crimes that were made possible because of his status at Penn State, and some which were specifically able to take place because Paterno did nothing to stop it after the 2002 shower incident. This wasn't a one-time mistake; this was a systematic, conscious decision over a period of a decade to put football above everything. Honestly, I don't care what JoePa did for the school, or that he did it for fifty years -- what he didn't do to help a dozen or fifty or a hundred kids is a million times more important, and I defy anyone to say differently.
In the three months between the scandal becoming national news and Paterno's death, I kept waiting for Joe Paterno to express not just a modicum of remorse, but an actual admission of shame. I kept waiting for Paterno to break down and throw himself at the mercy of the victims' mothers, to express devastation that he not only could have done more, but should've done more and was wrong for not doing otherwise. I kept waiting for the honor, the pride, the morals that had been attributed to him for so many years to show themselves, for him to castigate the people in charge of Penn State for their part in tolerating Sandusky, for him to disassociate himself from the Schultz's and Curley's and Spanier's who had let it happen, and for him to declare making Jerry Sandusky his assistant a mistake that haunted him to his core.
Instead, the Paterno that presented himself in his final months was a saccharine up-beat one who only wanted to discuss football, who fought to keep his job, who wanted to have a press conference where only Penn State's upcoming football game would be discussed, and who expressed disappointment when that conference was ultimately canceled. He lead the students around his house in a cheer after he was fired, and in his first and only interview between then and his death, he disavowed what he said to the grand jury, claiming that McQueary "didn't want to get specific. And to be frank with you I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man."
As Drew Magary of Deadspin so eloquently wrote after reading the interview: "Joe Paterno is full of shit."
And yet, the people who defended Paterno looked at his behavior in his final days as further proof of his splendor. What I found an infuriating lack of contrition, they found commendable, even honorable. Joe Posnanski, who's in the middle of writing a book about Paterno, wrote as much in a recent article, stating that Paterno spent his final days in peace and not bitter and not full of regrets. He even said he asked the following of Paterno, a question so horrifyingly infested with bias that it deserves to follow Posnanski to his grave: "I asked Paterno at one point in that last month if he hoped that people would come to see and measure his full life rather than a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester."
What an insultingly dismissive, offensive, inconsiderate way to ask that question. Posnanski is an excellent writer, but he too is one of the many Paterno supporters living in a fantasy world where JoePa is the personification of class, and where a few smiles and grins mean not only that he's a kind old man, but that he's one of the greatest human beings ever put on the planet. It's tremendously disappointing to read something so amateurishly written, where Paterno's culpability in Sandusky's actions is reduced to "a single, hazy event," as though that excuses everything.
The bottom line is that there are two types of people in this world: there are the people who, when informed that one of their co-workers has been seen sexually fondling a young boy, do everything in their power to put the perpetrator in jail. And there are the people who do nothing, who go on having conversations in the parking lot with the perpetrator and don't have trouble sleeping at night, wondering if they had really done enough. If Paterno really was such an amazing person, he would have made the first choice in a heartbeart. But he didn't, and for Posnanski to apologetically cover his child-molester-friendly actions is pathetic. It honestly makes me lose all credibility for Posnanski, who should be embarrassed to have even suggested that Paterno's career on the gridiron should seriously get mentioned over the dozens of children that got raped when he didn't do a thing to stop it... LET ALONE that Posnanski softballed it to Paterno without the slightest intention of being an independent journalist hellbent on getting to the bottom of anything. No doubt, when Posnanski does get around to writing his biography on Paterno, it'll be a fluffy, Greg Mortenson-esque fairy tale of a mythical Joe Paterno, a man who somehow managed to be great despite failing as a human being at the absolute critical moment when he needed to do the right thing.
Of course, if even Posnanski can be this delusional, it's no wonder the whole media is fawning over Paterno. To be sure, the way Paterno's death has been treated by the mainstream sports media has been downright abysmal -- not because they're mourning the loss of an incredibly-beloved man, but because they're doing it in a light that paints Paterno as one-dimensional cartoon character. It's as if all those complaints about him went out the window the moment he died; when we needed a tough nose-to-the-grindstone media that would challenge Paterno on his shortcomings, we got Sally Jenkins writing a follow-up-question-less love letter of an interview, a sycophantic profile by Joe Posnanski, and a myriad of analysts like Dick Vital who showed all the partisanship of a 13-year-old schoolgirl meeting Justin Bieber for the first time. Make no mistake, our media failed BIG TIME.
Child molestation is the worst crime anyone on this planet can commit. It is not to be tolerated, it is not to be excused, and neither is the covering up such crimes, or as Joe Posnanski would delicately describe it: "hazy events with an alleged child molester." Joe Paterno was a good man who spent the majority of his life doing good things, and for whatever the hell it's worth, he won a lot of football games. But not even his death has to right to obscure the obvious, pernicious events that took place during his tenure, or that he did very little to prevent it and made little attempt to explain it. Joe Paterno needed to be chastised. He needed to be castigated. Someone needed to point out that much like Greg Mortenson, the vast majority of his charity work was self-motivated, and the moment he was required to help someone in a spot that wouldn't help the football team, he failed, and it was a consistent, not-at-all-isolated nine-year failure. Instead, as a final send-off, the media fell back into old habits, and Paterno once again become Flawless Man -- a depiction that holds all the intellectual weight of the child-adult relationship in Lolita.
But don't take my word for it. Go out and buy Joe Posnanski's book about Paterno, which -- if there's any justice in the world -- will be located in the fiction section of your nearest bookstore. It may not contain many hard-hitting questions, or chapters about how disappointed he was in Paterno, or even a manifesto about how the inability to protect children is indeed more significant than any on-the-field successes in game where fratboys throw a pigskin around for sixty minutes. But in a way, that's perfect. What better to epitomize the gross characterization of Paterno than with a 200-page puff piece from the most esteemed sports writer in the nation, who will capture the image of Paterno in such childlike wonder, you'll swear it's as if he's an innocent little kid, happy to go on the with the rest of his life, no doubt appreciating that he had never been slowed by "a single hazy event" that could have robbed him of his imagination.