A moment of sympathy for Joe Paterno

Penn State coach Joe Paterno walks off the field after warmups before the Northwestern game in Evanston, Ill., last October. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Penn State coach Joe Paterno walks off the field after warmups before the Northwestern game in Evanston, Ill., last October. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: July 13, 2012

JOE PATERNO, like his paisano Vince Lombardi, was a Renaissance man. Both Italians are known as icons of football, with bronze monuments erected to them before coliseums of the sport. But both were men of great intellect as well, lovers of the classics and fluent in the language of Homer and Virgil.

In fact, Paterno was particularly taken with the story of Aeneas, the Trojan hero who was persecuted by the gods after his homeland was destroyed by vengeful Greeks and their champions on Olympus. As Bill Moushey and Bob Dvorchak note in Game Over, an early account of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Paterno "often referred to the story in his informal sessions with sportswriters, saying ‘as Aeneas found out, life comes down on you with some terrible whacks if you don't do the right thing.' "

It's hard to miss the Greek tragedy in that. JoePa is perhaps the most tragic character in this sordid affair, primarily because he will never have the opportunity to explain how he acted, or why he failed to. He cannot reach out from beyond the grave, even though his family is trying its best to defend him, and tell us why childhoods were destroyed on his watch. There are still many questions that haven't been answered, even in the Freeh report issued Thursday, and while many minds were made up on a November evening last year, many more are still reeling from the sheer weight of the possibilities.

But this is irrelevant now. Joe Paterno's legacy has been tarnished, perhaps beyond repair, by both rumor and reality, supposition and substance, commission and omission. Some of the things that emerged from the Freeh report reflect poorly on the administrators at Penn State, who seemed to be covering their backsides in an attempt to serve two masters: the state, and Penn State. Others point fingers at a culture of football supremacy that cared more about bowl games than a child's innocence. And some, sadly, imply that Joe Paterno may have tried to push things out of sight, not because he cared more about championships than he did children (despite what the institutional critics are claiming) but because he was ill-prepared to deal with the events.

Months ago, when news of this horrific scandal first emerged, I wrote that we need to understand the psyche of a man like Paterno. Eighty five when he died, he came out of a generation that didn't talk about "those things." If you ask anyone over the age of 70 about child abuse, they will admit that it happened but that it wasn't something you acknowledged privately, let alone publicly. That's not to say it's right. It just is.

And no, that's not an excuse for a man with the reputation of Joe Paterno, because he was a moral giant in a world where far too many coaches thought about the bottom line and didn't care if their star players were whoring or drugging around, or that they had flunked out of remedial math. His inability, or unwillingness, to grasp the nature of Sandusky's crimes is magnified precisely because he was so special.

But in this brave new world where sexual abuse has become the greatest of all evils and those who are slow to recognize it wear a Scarlet "I" for ignorance on their chests, can't we still have a little bit of sympathy for a man who in every possible aspect of his life could be called noble? Do we have to, as some commentators have done, destroy a life's worth of work because of one heinous mistake?

For some of us the answer is an unequivocal "yes." After I wrote about Paterno late last year, and then after his death in January, my inbox filled with the same sort of emails I get whenever I talk about the Catholic Church scandal. Most of the commenters are anonymous, and probably never achieved in their private lives and public offices one scintilla of the accomplishments of Penn State's fallen lion. And yet they feel free to stand in judgment of his whole life because of their anger.

Maybe they're entitled to that anger. But they are not entitled to rewrite the script for a man who was, like Aeneas, flawed but who was also someone who improved generations of lives by simply existing, caring and staying in that small and isolated town in Pennsylvania's heart.

The gods, when they were angry, caused havoc among humanity. It wasn't the gods that derailed the good life of Joe Paterno. It was his own "failure to do the right thing," in one glaring instance.

I prefer to remember him for all of the right things he did. n

Christine Flowers is a lawyer. Send email to cflowers1961@gmail.com and read her blog at philly.com/FlowersShow. We invite you to comment on this story at www.philly.com/psucomments. Comments will be moderated.

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