STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 09: Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno watches his team during practice on November 9, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Joe Paterno was fired by Penn State's board of trustees on Wednesday night, the latest turn in the darkest tragedy college sports has ever seen. It was also the first step forward.
When I was much younger, my attention span was about as wide as dental floss, so "reading time" in my family was always a chore on par with doing the dishes or eating my vegetables. Then when I was about 8 years old, my mom discovered something that could actually keep me occupied—sports books.
I was the only member of my family who loved or even liked sports, so if they were going to force me to read, it'd at least be something that everyone else in considered a waste of time. And for my mom, that was an acceptable compromise.
So whenever I finished one book, she went out and bought whatever children's sports book caught her eye first. I only had one demand: Absolutely no fiction. No sports books about the neighborhood hero hitting the winning shot or hitting their first home run to win the little league championship.
This meant my mom bought lots of biographies. Lots and lots of biographies. The ones with the big font and glossy covers and 10 pages of pictures in the middle. Most of them still sit on the shelves in my old room.
I was back there this week, looking through all the titles and laughing. Here's a sample of some of the books my mom used to keep me occupied during my early adolescence.
- In The Huddle with... John Elway (Matt Christopher)
- The Emmitt Zone (Emmitt Smith with Steve Delsohn)
- Go For The Goal: A Champion's Guide to a Winning Life (Mia Hamm with Aaron Heifetz)
- Faith In The Game: Lessons On Football, Work, And Life (Tom Osborne)
- Goooal! A Celebration of Soccer (Andres Cantor)
The Coaches' Little Playbook: Thoughts from Great Coaches about the Greatest Game of All—Life
- Run and Shoot Football: The Now Attack (Glenn "Tiger" Ellison)
- A Biography of Tiger Woods (John Strege)
- Every Down, Every Distance: My Journey to the NFL (Wayne Chrebet with Vic Carucci)
- I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It (Charles Barkley with Michael Wilbon)
- Chicken Soup for the Sports Fan's Soul
- A Coach's Life (Dean Smith with John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins)
- Raise The Roof (Pat Summitt with Sally Jenkins)
- Back On Top: The University of Michigan's Odyssey To The National Championship (George Cantor)
Best of all: The books were non-fiction, so the stories were real.
ONLY LATER—not until this week, really—did I realize those books were as much fiction as any Matt Christopher hero narrative. Airbrushed reality isn't that different from a full-on fairytale. Take the book on Tom Osborne, for instance. Toward the end of Faith in the Game, Osborne talks about his philosophy on disciplining players. He cites individuals cases like this one:
There was often tension between what was best for the individual and what might be best for the team as a whole. In Lawrence Phillips' case, for instance, it appeared the best thing for Lawrence was to stay on the team. This seemed to coincide with what the majority of players on the team felt was the right thing to do, so the decision was not terribly difficult to make. I was not necessarily unconcerned about the media or public perception, but I knew that if decisions were based on the opinions of those outside the program ... we would end up with a chaotic situation. My faith told me that every player was of great worth irrespective of his athletic talent, and I could not, in good conscience, throw someone away to lessen the public criticism.
Osborne had already retired as Nebraska's head coach and was in the process of running for congress when he wrote that about Phillips, the superstar running back who was accused of breaking into an ex-girlfriend's apartment, dragging her down the stairs by her hair, and bashing her head against a mailbox. His book was published in 1999.
Back in 1995, Sports Illustrated spoke to a local prosecutor who painted a different picture.
"I don't tell Tom Osborne how to run the football department," Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey says, "and he should stay out of the criminal justice system. He hasn't done that at all." According to Lacey, Osborne has taken it upon himself to interview witnesses in criminal cases, offered very public opinions on the probable innocence of players who have yet to stand trial and attacked the credibility of witnesses testifying against his players. In January 1994 he and an assistant even locked away a gun that had allegedly been used by one of his players in the commission of a felony.
"That's Osborne using his influence to disrupt the criminal justice system," Lacey says. "Osborne talks to witnesses. Whether he tried to influence them or not ... someone with his reputation would have an effect."
Okay so upon review, maybe Osborne used his influence to manipulate the justice system. And it's pretty hard to believe that he would have gone to those lengths for a player who didn't run for 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore. But that doesn't mean Osborne didn't truly believe what he wrote, and didn't believe he was doing what was best for Phillips (the individual who needed football to keep from careening out of control) and for his team as a whole (who needed Phillips). Ultimately, Tom Osborne was doing his best to do what was best.
The problem is that he existed in an airbrushed reality of his own. A reality where he was the most powerful person in a state where a football coach with no political experience can run for Congress and win. Where his idea of what's best was always the idea of what's best.
IT'S NOT PERFECT, but as a microcosm of what's emerged at Penn State this week, it'll do for now. Both Osborne and Joe Paterno enjoyed the fruits of sainthood long before they passed on to the coaching afterlife, and they got there by make executive decisions on behalf of many.
Now, as the week has unfolded in State College and the scale of Jerry Sandusky's crimes comes into focus, the failure of Joe Paterno's decision-making has been unavoidable. And make no mistake: Joe Paterno's influence cast doubt on the Sandusky allegations the same way Osborne loomed over Nebraska investigations. Maybe he never actively covered up Jerry Sandusky's crimes or coerced any witnesses, but he knew about some of the allegations, and more importantly, others knew he knew.
In a world where Joe Paterno has always known what's best for everyone, his silence on Sandusky spoke volumes and likely kept others silent, too. So others followed suit. And that's how untold years of Jerry Sandusky allegedly raping young boys went mostly uninvestigated.
Years later, what's alleged in the Jerry Sandusky grand jury investigation is as vile and horrific and tragic as any story you'll ever see in sports or anywhere else. But mostly, it's unspeakable. In a completely literal sense—it's the sort of thing human beings have trouble acknowledging with language.
And that's what happened in State College. This was a game of telephone where everyone was speechless. Starting with the victims, continuing to Mike McQueary, then Paterno, and right on up the chain of command. It's understandable, though.
I spoke to a prosecutor this week who deals with cases of child molestation, and he told me that one of the biggest challenges in these cases is that even the parents of some victims will ignore certain red flags and think nothing when their children tell them something weird has happened to them. Children can't always find the right words. So often times, he told me, parents hear weird, not wrong, and think nothing of it.
So no, I don't blame Joe Paterno for hearing "weird" when someone told him of a wrong, and neither should you. All the people decrying the way we elevate football coaches to sainthood imply that football coaches shouldn't be looked upon as any better than the rest of us. Right?
But we can't have it both ways. Joe Paterno can't be the false deity AND the all-knowing seer who should have known everything. He's a human being, and any human being would have trouble processing something this unfathomable, particularly if he only had half the story. I don't even blame him for not wanting to know more.
But God I'm glad he got fired.
JERRY SANDUSKY'S ALLEGED CRIMES—forty counts of abuse (and possibly counting) tied to coercing anal and oral sex from young boys he met through his charity organization—may have been wholly unspeakable, but that doesn't make the silence acceptable. Joe Paterno may have lacked the strength to comprehend the reality at first, and that's understandable. But even as the reality became clear, he's done nothing.
Mind you, this investigation's been ongoing for years, and Paterno testified at a grand jury hearing long before any of the Sandusky allegations came to light. In other words, if not in 2002 when he first learned of something weird, then he certainly found out something wrong happened when he sat before a grand jury asking him about his most prestigious former assistant raping young boys. And yet there was Sandusky, working out at Penn State's practice facility as recently as two weeks ago.
That's where college football's lone living saint loses the benefit of the doubt.
You can excuse Paterno's failures when he first heard an inkling, but as that gradually gave way to an avalanche, Paterno hasn't flinched. Never once has he taken responsibility for not reporting Sandusky, nor did he ever turn his back on him. Then this week, even as his football program brought shame and horror to the school he's called home for 60 years, Paterno still planned to coach this weekend. He even had the gall to release a statement saying, "At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status."
It's all so incredibly cowardly that it almost boggles the mind.
The only explanation is that maybe these days, that airbrushed reality reserved for fawning biographies is the only reality Joe Paterno understands. Where he's the savior to the end, the moral compass regardless of moral lapses. Maybe a big part of State College exists in that same world. Same with other college towns. That's part of their charm, of course. Until it's not.
Listening to the press conference Wednesday night, as the Board of Trustees announced Joe Paterno's firing and reality collided with its airbrushed counterpart, someone in the room spoke up to complain about the board's vague firing process. "People are asking you for justification for tonight firing Joe Paterno," he said. "Instead of letting him finish out his career with a little bit of dignity."
A little bit of dignity, huh? That would have come if he had accepted even partial responsibility for the greatest atrocity college sports has ever seen, resigned immediately, and implored students to understand that if even one victim is telling the truth, then there is simply no other option.
Instead Paterno chose otherwise. And there's no dignity in delusion.
LOVING SPORTS over a lifetime all but guarantees the loss of our innocence as fans. Athletes do horrible things, teams relocate, owners squeeze customers for every last dime... Even coaches disappoint us. But that's all okay—it just makes the nostalgia that much sweeter.
That's part of the reason people loved Joe Pa so much. In a sports world shot to hell in the modern era, Paterno was nostalgia personified. So as the controversy swirled this week, I found myself going back to my childhood bedroom, where I had a copy of a Joe Paterno biography my mom brought home 10 or 15 years ago.
It's called Joe Paterno: The Coach from Byzantium. His brother, George, was his biographer. I don't remember much from the first time I read it, but there's one section that resonated the second time around. Toward the end, Paterno's brother relates a controversy from late in the season in a game vs. Rutgers.
Penn State had the game well in hand, so Paterno put in his backup quarterback, "a big redheaded kid named Mike McQueary". Paterno probably should have kneeled, his brother writes, but he wanted to give McQueary a fair chance to play. So they ran running plays until third down, when Paterno called a short pass play. Only a receiver was wide open 20 yards down the field, so McQueary threw it to him for a touchdown. "He did what he was coached to do," the book says.
And Paterno was crucified for running up the score. As his brother writes:
What subsequently transpired was an unjust bashing of one of the most distinguished coaches in history, and a journalistic mockery. Of course, ESPN had a field day with the scene, but that was to be expected. It was the independent Eastern journalists and media (mostly with Eastern attachments) who violated every principle of professional journalism. They went beyond extrapolating. The entire incident was never investigated to reveal what actually happened. Only a one-sided, slanted was taken by many Eastern writers and broadcasters. It was the opportunity they had waited a long time for. JoPa had slipped and shown a human side. They now had an excuse to pillorize a man held in high esteem by the top coaches and educators in the country.
As protests continue in a shellshocked State College community, that warped reasoning probably makes a lot of sense to many of Joe Paterno's supporters this week.
It definitely made a lot of sense to me when I was reading it as an 11-year-old in 1998. And in a weird way, even if I know better now, I miss the days when those biographies were gospel to me. When all the icons in sports were heroes who overcame hardscrabble beginnings on the way to not just winning, but winning the right way. I'll always look back on that era with love.
That's not true for Jerry Sandusky's alleged victims. They lost their chance to enjoy any airbrushed fiction that life is fair and people always do the right thing, and nothing done this week brings that back. We can't change the past and what wasn't said then. But you know, with all due respect to the "man held in high esteem by the top coaches and educators", thanks to his football program, we have unspeakable realities at the forefront of conversation in America and college sports. It's nice that someone finally made a statement.