What to make of Paterno? He was human
We are so stupid. And by we, I mostly mean we in the media.
We never learn, even after we write long, eloquent testimonies about what we supposedly have learned. We still use "hero" inappropriately, compare games to battles and turn coaches and athletes into saints with only very scant and superficial corroborating evidence.
We were right back at it in the wake of Joe Paterno’s death Sunday, penning once-upon-a-time, fairy-tale obituaries about how JoePa was 99 percent moral and just had this one tiny little screw-up. (Y’all go ahead and explain that slight of words to Jerry Sandusky’s alleged victims and their families. Tell me how it goes.) We wrote of how he died of a broken heart, ignoring the cellular realities of cancer. As I was typing this column, ESPN showed a mural that included JoePa with a halo over his head.
Where is that SNL "Really?" montage when needed?
If we learned anything from these sordid Sandusky allegations, it should be to try to avoid the black and white moralistic caricatures of coaches and athletes and instead let them be human and all that entails. Instead we doggedly refuse to let them be stupid and arrogant, flawed and failed at times just like the rest of us.
We do not kick dirt on JoePa’s grave with this honesty, no matter what anyone says. Nor do we diminish his legacy by being real about what is almost assuredly his biggest failing — lack of follow-up with regards to Sandusky — reveals. It is quite the opposite actually. We do a disservice to the iconic Penn State coach’s life when we try to make him too perfect, when we try to whitewash the screw-up with libraries and graduating seniors and chain of command.
Because the fairy tale takes away the lesson and thereby detracts from what is one of the enduring legacies of JoePa’s life.
His legacy was that of a teacher. And at the end, he taught us that even the best of men screw up. He taught us that screw-ups have consequences. And he taught us that you do oftentimes regret the things you did not do more than the ones you did.
JoePa seems to be one of the ones who got it.
"In hindsight, I wish I had done more," he told the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins in her exclusive sit-down interview with him just a couple of weeks before his death.
The interview was filled with hedging and excuses and the difficult-to-read assertion that he could not fathom a man raping a boy even though that is exactly what his graduate assistant was describing to him. But at the end, after all that, he acknowledged more was required of him.
He was not hiding behind following proper protocol like the JoePalogists, or the library, or the graduating players. He seemed to understand that life is not a scale. We do not balance our moments of weakness with our good ones. They are all heaped together and you just hope your pile has more good ones.
What was needed was time, to take the rawness away. But Paterno was 85. He had cancer. And he died Sunday without the healing properties of distance.
And much like the embarrassing rush to break the news of his death, the rush to define his legacy is also fraught with the same perils.
I have always thought obituaries were written too soon. Legacies actually take time to settle in. And yes, I realize this is hypocritical since I am jumping into this legacy melee as well.
What I hope the legacy of Paterno will be is that it is possible to be both iconic and disappointing. It is possible to do the right thing a majority of the time and still have a screw-up so major that it clouds everything else. You can be a good man and still flawed. In fact, it is impossible to not be.
No, I do not buy into this "Joe just did this one wrong thing and his legacy should not be tainted by that" rationale, as I read in my former newsprint employer Monday and elsewhere.
It was not a wrong thing. It was not an "it" at all.
They were kids, kids allegedly put in the path of a suspected sexual predator because of the inaction of grown-ups who should have known better and would have done better had it been their own kids. The most stomach-turning part of Jenkins’ column was what Paterno’s wife said about the allegations against Paterno’s long-time assistant.
"If someone touched my child, there wouldn’t be a trial, I would have killed them," she told Jenkins. "That would be my attitude, because you have destroyed someone for life."
This is what everybody expected from JoePa — not the killing part, but the willingness to fight on behalf of kids because that is what his image was, of a guy who fought those kinds of battles. That he did not is no small thing.
History if filled with such stories, great men doing very tiny things.
Good people have meanness in them. Awful people do good things. And people are rarely only what we see in quick conversations or status updates or what they reveal.
Yet we like our villains and heroes. We like our narrative. We like to believe in this one guy is doing college sports right. We buy it, box it and sell it. We hold him up as this example of morality and good in a dirty system.
And when something like the Sandusky sex abuse scandal breaks, we knock the virtual halo off their heads that we put on.
As I tried to properly figure out why, I read this from Sam Eifling in an article on The Big Lead which summed it up nicely. Rather than try to recreate, I will just quote:
"When writers talk about the conflicted legacy Paterno left, they’re speaking as the arbiters of legacy, and the conflict they feel when the last Santa Claus they still believed in turns out to abet the raping of children."
And still we want the fairy tale. We still sell the fairy tale to you, that of this moral compass who did this one crazy bad and inexplicable thing and that makes him complicated.
He was not complicated. He was human; always was.
And the real villains are us for pretending otherwise and selling that fantasy to you.