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Paterno was great man, but flawed
There are no easy answers in contemplating and grappling with death, and there certainly are no easy answers in doing the same with Joe Paterno’s legacy after he passed away Sunday at age 85 following a battle with lung cancer.
The former Penn State football coach turned the Nittany Lions into a football force. He championed education and ethics as integral parts of a football program rather than turning those things into smoke screens for its shadier aspects. He touched people, reached them with his courtesy and grace — he embodied, to those in Happy Valley and those who knew him, all the power of good you can channel from athletics, success and fame.
And those qualities almost certainly empowered and allowed his former assistant Jerry Sandusky to use those same things —– to use JoePa’s brand and reputation itself and the power of fame and sports and success — to set up a world in which Sandusky allegedly sexually abused numerous children in ways so horrific they remain difficult to stomach or process without flashes of anger and horror.
Both things are true.
Joe Paterno was a great man.
And Joe Paterno failed at the most important thing ever entrusted to him — the knowledge that should have made it possible to stop Sandusky before someone else finally did.
Sandusky’s alleged actions reached out and destroyed not just the victims but Paterno, too. It would be easy for those angry, as I am angry, at what allegedly happened to those children to say: “Good. Paterno deserved it.”
But Joe Paterno did not deserve this. To be fired? Yes. To be questioned? Certainly. To be expected to answer for his apparent moral failing and horrendous error in judgment? No doubt.
But what happened Sunday, I believe truly, is that a good man who made an egregious mistake died of a broken heart. Cancer is a terrible disease, and it, like life and death and the morality tales that make up much of our time here, is a fickle thing all too difficult to understand.
The great man’s death was one of the last transgressions that Jerry Sandusky had a hand in.
I know Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer right after he was fired, and that this disease does not care who you are, what you do for a living or what you have or haven’t done with your life.
I also know cancer is a disease that, at times, has been fought as much with the mind as with modern medicine. And I know and believe, from my own experiences and that of others, that human beings who have something to live for can fight past what later turned out to be certain death, and that men who have nothing left to live for often, then, do not.
It is also true that Paterno’s cancer was thought treatable, and that it took a turn for the worse that cost him his life. It is true that two months after being fired over the Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno is dead.
You see, Joe Paterno lived for football. He loved it. He loved his university. He loved his players and those fans and everything he committed his life to make Penn State stand for. And certainly, in his apparent moral failing at the end, and in Sandusky’s ultimate betrayal, his heart was broken.
Life, death and legacy are complicated things, but they are also important enough that they should demand our candor rather than our knee-jerk need to concede hard truths.
Joe Paterno was a great man.
Joe Paterno, at the end and during a key moment for so many, was a moral weakling who ceded the safety of our most vulnerable and paid dearly for it.
Joe Paterno died of a broken heart — of a struggle and sadness and perhaps a guilt that quite literally sapped the life out of him.
It is a complicated world we inhabit, and few famous men in sports have encapsulated just how complicated it is more than JoePa.
Paterno’s legacy will, and should be, stained forever by Sandusky. And yet his actions and history before that epic failure are not rendered meaningless. They just remind us that as human beings we are capable of great good and great failure, we must always be on guard against ourselves and our successes — and, most important, we must try desperately to hold on to a sense of perspective no matter how celebrated, content or comfortable we become.
Joe Paterno did much, much good. And Joe Paterno allowed something awful to continue, something that deserves to be described as real evil — and some of the blame for that evil does and should fall to him.
But on this day, despite the very real flaws that will shape how we remember him, I choose to remember this: Joe Paterno, in the end, was a good man who, like all of us, was also all too human.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.