Monday, January 23, 2012

A Man In Full

"This is a tragedy.  It is one of the great sorrows of my life.  With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had done more."

                                                                                                         Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno never wanted to retire.  On more than one occasion he reminded people that Paul "Bear" Bryant died shortly after he quit coaching at Alabama.  He did not wish to suffer the same fate.  And sure enough, JoePa, the beloved Head Coach at Penn State for 46 years, died yesterday almost 2 months after being fired by Penn State's Board of Trustees on November 9 after it became known that the most horrific story in the history of college sports had occurred on his watch.

Nobody could have seen this one coming.  How could you?  The Grand Jury indicted Paterno's former Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky for unspeakable crimes against little boys.  One of the Counts described in graphic detail Sandusky allegedly molesting a 10 year old in the shower in the football team's locker room. 

A young Graduate Assistant witnessed the assault.  After speaking with his father, they both went to Paterno to tell him what he saw.  A day later Paterno informed his Athletic Director about what he was told.  The two accounts before the Grand Jury differ.  The GA testified before the Grand Jury that he advised Paterno that he had witnessed a sexual assault.  Paterno's testimony was that the account he heard was not as graphic as that.

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, an entire Nation was shocked by the fact that law enforcement was not advised of what Sandusky was alleged to have done to that poor boy on that awful night in the locker room.

Heads had to roll.  And one of them belonged to Joseph Vincent Paterno.

Paterno said the reason he didn't call the police himself was that he didn't want to go outside procedures for reporting incidents and that he reposed trust that his A.D. would take care of the situation.  And I believe that.  I also believe that a man in his eighties might not exactly be programmed to understand the gravity of the situation although how any sentient human couldn't be alarmed by the allegation that a former employee was seen naked in your team's shower with an equally naked little boy is pretty much beyond me.  But maybe that's what JoePa believed. 

But maybe a guy in his eighties doesn't need to be in charge of a football program.  And that's on Penn State's brass.  They tried to get him to retire in 2004.  He wouldn't do it and they didn't have the guts to push the button.  The tail of big time sports wags the dog in a lot of places.  I can't think of many other million dollar operations that have octogenarians at least nominally at the controls.

But let's get to it.  What is Joe Paterno's legacy?  He leads all NCAA Division I coaches in victories.  That record is not likely to be in danger. This is mainly because you will never see another head coach at one place for 45 years.  Ever.
His players tended to graduate and afterwards become useful and productive citizens.  Lord knows a bunch of Nittany Lions made it to the NFL.  Paterno and his wife Sue donated millions to the college.  And JoePa was a genuinely unpretentious sort whose number was in the phone book and who walked back and forth between the college and the modest ranch house where he and Sue raised their kids.  Bet you can't just ring up Urban Meyer.

But unfortunately, at least for the near term, Joe Paterno's legacy will be tarnished by the sex scandal that cost him his job and which will undoubtedly subject his Estate and his former employer to liability.  And to the limited extent that some good came of these unspeakable crimes, it is equally without doubt that new protocols are now in place in college athletic departments setting out mandatory reporting requirements concerning sexual assaults on children.  You know that while such incidents are isolated at the college level it is bound to have happened before.  Ask Roy Boeheim.  Or better yet, ask Bernie Fine's wife. 

One of his former players said that Joe Paterno died of a broken heart.  Of course, this is romantic nonsense.  There aren't many good outcomes when an elderly person gets lung cancer.  But I have no doubt that Joe Paterno grieved mightily as the full gravity of the inadequacy of his response came to rest upon him.  After all, the man has children and grandchildren.  You can't coach for as long as he did without loving young people.  And I am certainly willing to concede that the stress of all of this certainly didn't help matters any.  It had to have taken a terrible toll.  How could it not?  But still,  while you can bet that Internet message boards will be full of posts blaming Penn State's Board of Trustees for Paterno's demise, this is dangerous foolishness. 

The public record of the man in full is exemplary in the extreme.  Whether that public record will ever be free of the taint of this awful scandal is highly problematic.

A child got molested in his locker room.  For whatever reason, the authorities weren't notified.  All of these things happened on this good man's watch.  I don't know if the passage of time can unring such a horrific bell. 

And while the scar on Joe Paterno's otherwise exemplary public record is not the tragedy to which he correctly alluded at the top of this post, there are tragic dimensions to his downfall.

He studied the classics at Brown.  He understood tragedy.  In his dotage, maybe he forgot hubris.

Rest in peace, Mr. Paterno.  Rest in peace.


Beth said...

A friend-of-a-friend suggested I check out your blog a year (or two or some distant time) ago. I said thanks for the recommendation, and never followed up on it. Again this morning, this friend-I-don't-often-hear-from emailed me, saying that I really should read your blog. And so I did... in lieu of going back to bed for a rainy day nap on my morning off. And I just wanted to say that I have enjoyed your perspective. Thank you.

One of my friends posted this quote from Joe Paterno -- "With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had done more." -- on the day Paterno died. I was surprised by the cynical and superior comments that followed: "D'ya think?" "That's gotta be the biggest understatement of the year."

Do you remember the end of SCHINDLER'S LIST, when Oskar Schindler said essentially the same thing? "This watch! I could have done more..." And we all cried and thought, "True, but you did so much."

It strikes me that any of us -- despite our successes and failures in this lifetime, despite our guilts or glories -- when it comes right down to it, if we are very honest, we all could say the same. Because really, in hindsight, who shouldn't have done more? I, for one, am not ready to cast that stone.

tmfw said...

Welcome, Beth. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and to make such a thoughtful comment. I look forward to hearing from you again in the future.