You Can’t Have It Both Ways With Paterno

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Either Joe Paterno was an increasingly detached figurehead or a cold, calculating, self-interested manipulator.

Which is it?

The latest story is that Paterno, cognizant that the Jerry Sandusky arrest and subsequent revelations were likely to explode and take a large chunk of his program with him, renegotiated his contract to insulate his perks and those used by his family.

You can read the NY Times Story here.

Could Paterno take that strong a hand and look ahead with such ruthlessness that he was concerned about those issues? Or was it the people around him—his children and wife—who were insulating their benefits for the aftermath when Paterno might not have had that much longer to live anyway?

What we’re supposed to reconcile is that Paterno didn’t grasp the gravity of the Sandusky allegations in 1998-2011, but following his grand jury testimony he knew enough to shield his liability and ensure his contract wouldn’t be torn up if his part in a coverup was discovered.

It’s a bit farfetched.

Only those that were around the program and Paterno on a day-to-day basis knew whether he was totally in control of the team or was the old man on the sideline with his assistants handling things day-to-day. They’ll come up with funny JoePa stories of how he was still in charge, but who believes it other than those invested in the myth? It sounds like age discrimination to suggest that he wasn’t entirely aware of his surroundings and able to process all that was placed in front of him, but when someone is in their eighth and ninth decades on the planet—no matter how lucid and feisty they are—there’s going to be a decline in their faculties and speed of comprehension. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any man or woman in their mid-70s-mid-80s that can oversee a program as large as Penn State’s with the vigilance of a coach 20 years younger.

When he was informed of the Sandusky behaviors in 1998 (if that was indeed the first time he’d heard about them—a shaky premise) he could clearly have done more than he did. In his 70s and with so much to lose, was he capable of acting as an objective boss and do what needed to be done for those children even at the risk of sending his beloved program into disarray? Could he conceive of what would happen if they did nothing and allowed Sandusky to keep operating with clear impunity in the interests of Penn State and the Paterno “I’m better than you” legacy?

When someone is treated as if they’re above the fray and not subject to the human condition, the inherent danger is that they begin to think they have to bolster that lie at the expense of common decency. This 1950s style, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Happy Days in Happy Valley perfection is drilled into the students of Penn State. Part of Paterno’s appeal was his insistence on doing things the “right” way. But that “right” way is always a matter of perception and, in many cases, it’s based on what the architects of the tale were able to hide and how effectively they hid it. The amount of good he did is now being obscured by the failure to act when he was informed of what was going on with one of his longtime assistants. And it should. That concept of the nuclear family with the mother and father in a loving home; with the 3 children who all go to school and behave themselves; who join the boy and girl scouts; call their mother ma’am and their father sir; and play football simply for the thrill of competition and the sporting ideal is not real. It never was. Don’t be surprised if more information comes out that the people at Penn State knew or suspected this despicable information about Sandusky long, long, long before 1998 and, in the interests of Paterno and the university, that it was swept under the rug.

No, there were no grade and recruiting violations at Penn State; no “bad seeds” hired as players because they could help the team win but would be terrifying presences around the campus; no compromises by the coach on the field and with the players he led to glory on Saturday afternoons. But there was this. It all fed into itself; it fed the monster until it grew too big to let die. The image-the ethics-the success-the money, the image-the ethics, the success, the money—a cycle that wouldn’t, couldn’t end.

The indoctrination of anyone and everyone who enters Penn State led to the riots when he was deservedly fired last December. Of course Paterno was still trying to stay on as coach. “Let Joe finish the season,” was the lament as if it mattered. It’s the same as any cult where the demagogue is not to be questioned, disciplined and, most importantly, dispatched. Dictators never leave their dictatorship willingly. They’re dragged off and many die during the transference of power or shortly thereafter by causes natural and not.

If they’d acted preemptively, would the cash cow that Paterno was have stopped that cash forever if this was addressed in 1998 or before? If they’d gotten in front of this whenever it was truly understood exactly what was going on, the story would’ve been devastating, but would’ve passed. Sandusky would’ve been a poison name for the university, but also would’ve been in jail and countless children would’ve been saved. If that were the case, Paterno and the people in charge of Penn State would’ve had the moral high ground that was the foundation of the Paterno legacy in the first place.

Now no one’s going to remember Paterno’s supposedly clean program or all the good that he did because of the mistakes he made (or was advised—poorly—to make) as he allowed a child molester to roam freely around his campus in the interest of personal gain and “protecting” Penn State as if it couldn’t exist without the idolatry lavished on Paterno.

The excuse of Paterno being too old to comprehend the severity of what Sandusky was doing can’t be valid when he wasn’t too old to coach a team of 18-22 year-olds every Saturday and reap the rewards of that responsibility as if he was better than the average human because he didn’t give his players a little pocket money; didn’t cover for them when they cheated on tests; didn’t look the other way at any little or big liberties they took because they were football players at the university.

In the end you have to look at what he did.

So was he able to calculate the consequences once Sandusky was arrested and take the action he did with his contract on his own? Or was he steered in a certain direction by his family? A direction not to salvage his legacy—only a delusional person isn’t taking an 85-year-old person’s life in short increments rather than the long-term—but his contract sweeteners that would have been in jeopardy and his widow and children would’ve lost if the scandal engulfed him as it eventually did?

That would shift the blame to the living; to those still dealing with the fallout; to those who stand to lose the perks that the contract renegotiation covered.

I doubt they’re going to permit that. What they’ll do is try to shift the goalposts of the legend of Paterno even if it’s a legend similar to those TV sitcoms from the 1950s and has little-to-no basis in reality.

Was he an out of touch old man? Or was he running the program and able to maintain enough mental acuity to renegotiate his deal so his wife could use the campus spa?

It can be one or the other. But it can’t be both.

Either way his supporters can’t win. If it’s the former, then there’s an open admission that they kept him around as a prop when he was past his sell-by date. If it’s the latter then he was a severely flawed individual who put his own interests above those of the children that Sandusky was abusing.

You tell me which one it was.

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