Late this afternoon, legendary football coach Joe Paterno was forcibly removed from a position he’d held for the last 45 years, at a university where he’d worked for the last 61. During that time he had led the Nitanny Lions through 548 games, 409 victories, 5 undefeated seasons, 37 bowl appearances, and 2 national titles.
No other football coach of the modern era was as adored, and well respected as “JoePa”. To both his players and his fans, he was a father figure, a mentor, and a role model; a ideal of both leadership and graceful humility. He was the antithesis of flash: a simple man, all but invisible on the sideline but for his trademark horn-rimmed glasses and non-descript windbreakers. For Paterno, old-school teamwork was the ideal. He expected his players to work together in support of the whole, rather than as a support group for a single superstar looking for self-glory. His players wore jerseys without names because they, like Joe, adhered to the belief that, “When there is no name on your jersey, you have to find other ways to get noticed.”
Today, all that history, all that tradition, all that honor, and all that respect vanished as a true titan of the gridiron was was toppled by a seismic wave of revelations over a sexual abuse scandal and cover-up. The decline and fall of Joe Paterno is almost Greek in tragic scale; a powerful, and beloved, man brought low by poor decisions made on behalf of a trusted associate whose hubris
The scandal is as follows:
Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator and friend of Paterno’s for more than 23 years, retired unexpectedly from his position in 1998, but retained access to Penn State’s athletic facilities as a reward, of sorts, for service to the team and university. In an indictment filed November 4th of this year, Sandusky was charged with 40 criminal counts for sex crimes, most occurring between the years of 1994 and 2009. In one instance, the victim was a ten-year-old boy.
While Paterno himself is not charged with any wrongdoing, the investigation revealed that he was made aware of Sandusky’s behavior at least once, and failed to do anything about it – bumping the decision up the university’s chain of command instead. This revelation was major blow to Paterno’s reputation, and many child advocates argued that he showed an appalling lack of leadership when it should have mattered most. Stung by these accusations, Paterno offered his resignation – designed to take effect at the end of the current football season – but the Penn State trustees, bowing to political pressure and public outcry, ordered his immediate dismissal.
Just like that, a legendary career evaporated. What’s happening now, is turning the tragedy into something perverse.
As I write, Penn State students have taken to the streets of Beaver Avenue in Downtown State College in protest of what they feel is an unjustified dismissal of their beloved coach. The Internet and Twittersphere are filled with outraged comments from football fans that the university is punishing the football team for the actions of another man. Photos show students carrying cardboard cutouts of the man, and placards bearing the words, “Joe Paterno IS NOT the victim”.
They are absolutely right, but they are also absolutely wrong.
Joe Paterno is not the victim here, but, should the allegations against Jerry Sandusky prove true, the children that saw their trust betrayed and innocence destroyed are. That the university was made aware of these allegations as far back as 1998, when Sandusky was still actively employed as a coach, suggests that politics and personal attachments played a large role in dealing with the issue. Both Joe Paterno and the university administration were made aware of the abuse, but neither did anything to report or investigate the allegations further. Instead, they tried to bury the stories, to keep it all out of the press. The university, and by extension Joe Paterno, abandoned their responsibility to the children because facing the truth of their oversight was more politically uncomfortable than morally reprehensible. This is why Joe Paterno was punished.
Football is a sport; nothing more, nothing less. It is a game played by men (and some women) for the entertainment of others – an ephemeral event designed to bring in revenue, and boost civic, or collegiate, pride. For many fans, it may be a way of life; a tradition with elements of faith bordering on religious devotion. Loyal fans attend games like church, pray for touchdowns, and thank Jesus for fourth down conversions and Hail Mary receptions. They idolize their favorite players and teams, and assign mythical status to the best of the best, adopting players and coaches as role models to hold up to their children as examples of an ideal worth striving for.
What this scandal has shown is that, sometimes, the gods that we create for ourselves carry fundamental flaws, subject to forces we’d rather not examine too closely for fear of seeing the clockwork machinery beneath. The tragedy of Joe Paterno is that his life and career has now been eclipsed by the stupid actions of another – a disciple that defiled the tenets of the faith, and coerced his master into playing along by manipulating institutional loyalties over moral obligations. Paterno allowed his love for his university to eclipse his love for his fellow man, and for this sin he is rightfully being punished.
Nevertheless, it is my sincere hope that, in years to come, JoePa will be able to come to terms with his actions and the victims they produced, and that the world will allow the sting of his current disgrace to fade into the mists of time. Redemption will not come easily, but every faith offers some form of forgiveness, provided the act of contrition is sincere.