Friday, July 13, 2012

On Paterno

How ironic can names be? Consider with me:

• A man who grows up to become the General Manager of George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees... named CASHMAN

• An already famous man who becomes infamous for tweeting out a picture of his manhood... named WEINER

• A guy who runs a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi Scheme for decades, defrauding thousands of people & living off their wealth… named MADOFF

And, now-- we have a man who was a revered father figure for multiple generations of young men. Who, as it turns out, abandoned children who were in need of just such a father figure & protector. Who, as we learned in yesterday's Freeh Report, shielded a monster by acting like the father figure of a family mafia.

... named PATERNO.

The lionized leader of the Nittany Lions who, it turns out, was the definition of duplicity.

That's a lot of levels of irony. But it's no joke. Not for the victims of the man who Joe Paterno and his superiors lackeys protected.

A lot of good writers have already weighed in on Paterno. About how he was a derelict father figure. Or about how he was a a liar. Even about how Paterno's legacy now stands. An excerpt from that Dan Wetzel column:

There is no denying Paterno was a positive force in many lives, a gifted coach and motivator and, until now, a fine image for Penn State. None of that equals his shame.

The reason Paterno was able to wield such influence is the outsized value placed on college sports and the coaches who deliver those winning programs. A “pyramid of power,” Freeh described it. And anyone pointing to all the players he helped is just repeating the same pathetic concept.

Paterno did help his football players. Those men, however, were heavily recruited, talented and often highly motivated people. If they hadn’t gone to Penn State they would’ve gone to Michigan or Virginia or Notre Dame.

For decades he found a way to take top-line kids and maximize what they could do, usually by motivating them to excel at a sport they already loved. They were subject to mass adulation and had the potential to become millionaires at the professional level.

He wasn’t taking illiterate third-world children and getting them to Harvard. Almost every person Paterno positively impacted through football would have fared similarly had Penn State not even fielded a team. They just would have played elsewhere. Bo Schembechler or Lou Holtz or Bobby Bowden would’ve coached them up in football and life, just like Paterno did.

Conversely, the kids that Jerry Sandusky tricked, molested and in certain ways destroyed wouldn’t have lived the same life had Paterno done the right thing. They were attacked, out of nowhere. Without fault. Without provocation. Without the opportunity to create their own destiny.

The lives of these kids were profoundly and forever destroyed because of the actions of Sandusky, Spanier, Schultz, Curley and, yes, Joe Paterno.

There could never be enough victories, enough perfect graduation rates, enough national championships to justify that.

Joe Paterno was a great influence on men who were already likely to live great lives, men who could help him win football games.

He was a failure to those Second Mile boys who had no such talents, no such opportunity, no parade of recruiters looking to offer them scholarships. He turned his back on the very kids that were desperate for the kind of hero that Joe Paterno’s former legacy claimed he was all about.

And yet there are those who persist in saying that Joe Paterno was a man who "lived a profoundly decent life." Like Joe Posnanski, the man whose biography on Paterno will be published next month. And far be it from me to put words in Posnanski's book that the public has yet to see. But I suspect he will make mention of the lives Paterno touched that are touching others in tremendously positive ways.

Can you ignore that? You may have heard the Scriptures (1 Peter 4:8, James 5:20) that highlight the possibility of covering over a multitude of sins. But is it possible for a sin to cover over the magnitude of having “lived a profoundly decent life?”

I guess it depends on who is keeping the moral ledger. In the eyes of public opinion, I suppose the answer is 'yes.' The weight of Paterno's misdeeds is leading the media to tear his reputation asunder. "Not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark." (NYT) "Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique." (NYT) Certainly the courts will follow public opinion. There may be nothing left but a heaping crater after the civil liability lawyers get finished with Penn State. Not to mention the separate on-going investigations being conducted by the Attorney General's Office of Pennsylvania, the FBI, and the Federal Department of Education. That last one is especially frightening for a University. Making the on-going NCAA investigation look paltry by comparison.

But public opinion can be such a capricious moral judge. And if our moral compass is only as actuated as the scale of punitive damages that may be exacted, then that compass is broken.

I think Dan Wetzel artfully explains (above) how that the magnitude of these wrong-doings overwhelm the good Joe Paterno has done. But does it wipe out the good in it’s entirety? No. Because Paterno’s influence in the lives of his players persists. Players that in fact did not go to UVA or Notre Dame. Who were shaped and molded by Paterno & who are shaping and molding others with positive values. That’s what makes this so complicated.

I'll say this- the statue & shrine at Penn State University that lionizes Paterno as a “Humanitarian” has to be removed. The Freeh Report showed very clearly how PSU weighed the sentiment of being "humane." It had everything to do with how Paterno & co. weighed treating Jerry Sandusky. It had nothing to do with how Paterno & co. weighed the lives of children who had been raped. Not to mention the ones who would be raped over the next decade. Yes- the statue has to go. Has to. It mocks Penn State University (and everything that Joe said he stood for) as long as it stays up.

And even in some ways still I pity Paterno. The choices he had before him in 1998 and beyond weren’t clean. As a good buddy wrote to me, “Paterno had a right choice, but he didn’t have a nice choice.” I think that's right. Paterno didn't ask for this. He had a serious decision thrust upon him. And he made the wrong choice to cover willfully for a monster.

I just hope that you & I make better decisions if, God forbid, we’re ever faced with a right choice that’s not a nice choice.

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