Joe Paterno is back to being the winningest head coach in major college football history. All is right with the world and Paterno’s statue is the only thing left for a full adjudication of the man who led Penn State’s football program for so many years.
That’s what many around the Penn State program would have you believe after Friday’s announcement of an agreement between the NCAA and Penn State to restore all the missing wins on Paterno’s record.
However, for many it’s a convenient time to sweep the happenings of 2011 and 2002 under the rug like they never happened and gloss over the unhappy moments. Time to get back to worshiping the hero of Penn State football, because that means all is right with the world once again.
It’s a truly sad statement on a portion of the Penn State family, but it’s also the truth.
What transpired in November of 2011 was also truly sad, but not because of the way the NCAA treated Paterno or because of how Penn State fired him. Rather, what was sad were the words spoken by Paterno himself at that time.
He first spoke with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, giving his account of what all transpired in his firing and during the now infamous (and sick) incident in 2002.
Paterno admitted to a conversation with assistant coach Mike McQueary regarding some troubling actions between Sandusky and a child in the Penn State locker room showers. However, McQueary wasn’t asked to go in to detail, and this is the part that speaks volumes as to why Paterno’s restoration of wins can’t top his failure as a man when it counted most.
Rather than pressing McQueary for exact details as to what he saw, Paterno insisted those details would’ve done no good.
“And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man,” said Paterno.
Let me repeat that for you, in case those words haven’t sunk in… “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man.”
Really? Never heard of rape and a man before? Nevermind that it wasn’t exactly accurate to what happened, even if it was man raping a man, shouldn’t he have had the common sense to do something about it?
Jenkins went on to try and explain away that now infamous quote by spinning it as “an old-world man profoundly confused by what McQueary told him.”
Nevermind that this was Paterno of 2002 and not the frail, cancer-ridden, 81-year old man of 2011. But, let’s also explore the fact that we aren’t talking about a man raping another man or fondling another man.
How about rape and a child? Last I checked that’s what McQueary pointed out to Paterno at the very least, and if that didn’t raise major red flags for Paterno I’m not sure what would’ve at that point. The fact that Paterno couldn’t think that a man could be raped, let alone a man rape a child is beyond belief and a frank statement that he wasn’t fit to lead a football program.
There is little doubt that hindsight was 20/20 for Paterno upon hearing of the things Sandusky was alleged to, and later was convicted of, doing. He said as much in the Washington Post piece.
“I’m sick about it,” said Paterno about the allegations against his long time assistant coach.
At least the 2011 version of Paterno got what the 2002 version of himself couldn’t fathom — you know, that raping a child (whether a boy or girl) is wrong...very wrong and criminally wrong to boot.
However, the time for stepping up to the plate, feeling bad about what happened and doing something about it came in 2002 and not in the final month of life.
At the time, his interview came off as self-serving and pandering as a “victim” of some sort of media witch hunt out. The same media that had helped put him on the highest of pedestals, mind you.
Three years later, those words from the Jenkins article still haunt me and frankly they should haunt you too.
Whether it’s a man having sexual contact with a 12-year old boy or an adult woman doing the same…rape is rape, and Paterno not knowing it could happen is as inexcusable today as it was back in 2011 when he said it or 2002 when he failed to do anything but pass the buck up the food chain.
You know, that same food chain that did exactly nothing with the information given to them and the one Paterno never bothered to think it wise to follow up with. Then again, Paterno didn’t have any power on that campus…not like his name was on the library or his statue sat outside the football stadium or anything.
For a football coach who knew enough to win national championships, mentor thousands of players and become a father figure to many, Paterno sure became clueless when it mattered most.
The question remains, does one big mistake make a man’s legacy on the football field and his community good will go away?
For me it does, if for no other reason than Paterno had an opportunity to do the right thing for a child and he failed miserably. Instead of choosing to do the right thing morally, he cowered in supposed fear of, as Jenkins put it, ““…to be seen as trying to exert any influence for or against Sandusky.”
Paterno chose the adult colleague over the child that was truly helpless in the situation, and that is completely unforgivable. It doesn’t wholly erase the years of mentoring or all the giving and charitable work he did, but it also doesn’t mean we should just gloss over what happened here and act like he was the saint people made him out to be prior to 2011.
So, as many want to forgive and forget on Friday…let us all remember that Paterno had the power and the caché to do what was right and didn’t.
Painting him as just a saint or a failure is a bit much, and the truth is Paterno was likely as flawed a human as you and I are. He just so happened to fail in a way that can’t be explained away or ignored when considering him for the history books.