It is the main question. As we sit here today, the answer is unknown and maybe unknowable. Before his death, Paterno expressed regret in hindsight that he did not do more than alert his athletic director after being confronted in 2002 with an eyewitness account of an alleged sexual assault committed against a young boy by his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky. But he also denied knowing anything about a campus police investigation of Sandusky for another allegation in 1998.
The cynical narrative has already been written: that Paterno knew in 1998, and that is why he forced Sandusky out of the program in 1999, and that he did the bare minimum in 2002 by passing on the information to an athletic director over whom he towered, and that everyone thereafter took their cues from the legendary coach, and that it was all designed to protect the program that Paterno had built over the last half-century.
However compelling the story, though, there is a problem. It might not be true. People say, "He had to have known," but there is no objective evidence that Paterno knew. Not yet.
And this, again, is the prayer:
That he did not know.
Let's face it, all of us who watch sports with any kind of devotion do it because we want to believe in something, be it the synergy of teamwork or the magic of destiny or the superiority of talent or the necessity of passion. You watch for the excitement of the moment, yes, but also for the hope of something more. Something greater.
Joe Paterno was supposed to be something greater. Even if some of the legend was really myth, as it almost certainly was, the idea that winning within the rules was not only a proper pursuit but an achievable goal was supposed to be Paterno, distilled down to his professional essence.
Yes, there was an arrogance about the goal and about the man. Yes, he obviously believed that he knew best - on issues of player discipline, for instance, he clashed with university officials and won - and he just as obviously believed that his tenure and his mission were not open to challenge. There isn't another college coach in the country who could tell the school president and members of the board of trustees to take a hike when they wanted him to retire, but Paterno did.
The exterior was beyond gruff sometimes. But there was a core of good in there, of the best kind of athletic idealism - wasn't there? Isn't that what we all want to believe now that Paterno is gone? After everything?
When the Sandusky grand jury made its findings public, Paterno deserved to be fired. When an entire athletic culture - a culture built around Paterno and his tenure - fails so badly, as Penn State's did in 2002, they all have to go. It deserved to be messy, too. There was no other way to make clear the necessity of tearing down the walls.
But that was then. The punishment was for that single episode in 2002. We have learned since then that there are two kinds of people in the world: those that saw Paterno as an old man who suffered a terrible lapse in judgment, and those that saw an evil puppet master operating to preserve a tired myth.
Maybe we will find out, someday, one way or the other. But here is the problem. If he did know about the investigation in 1998 and still did the bare minimum in 2002, which would be the worst case, it will be easy enough to prove because his name will be found on some document or somebody will say that they told him back when it happened.
But what if there is no document? What if no one says they told Paterno? What then?
In the end, it will come down to what you believe.
Through all of this, I still want to believe.
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