Are they happy now – ESPN and CNN and the New York Times – for treating Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno like day-old mashed potatoes?
Are they pleased as punch – the Penn State Board of Trustees whose cowardice left JoePa with nothing for which to live?
Do they regret a thing – bloggers, writers, and other commentators who blamed Paterno for a scandal in which, we now know, he was the one person who acted honorably?
To paraphrase Richard Nixon, they won’t have JoePa to kick around any more – dead recently, at 85, of lung cancer, climaxing a tragedy redolent of Dreiser or Dostoevsky.
Many words describe how sport’s greatest teacher was treated in the last winter of his life: hateful, incomprehensible, cruel. The truest word is shameful – something Paterno’s critics would never grasp, incapable of feeling it.
Last November 5, the scandal that helped end Paterno’s life wracked the school he helped build at State College — Happy Valley. A grand jury report charged then-aide
Jerry Sandusky with forty counts of childhood sex abuse, including a 2002 incident where another coach, Mike McQueary, allegedly saw Sandusky having anal intercourse with a young boy in the shower.
What did McQueary then tell Joe Pa? What did he do, in turn? Recently, Paterno told the Washington Post that he “didn’t know exactly how to handle it,” having “never heard of, rape and a man.” Even so, he promptly and properly told higher-ups what McQuerary told him – assuming that they, several now arrested, would do their job as well.
By November 9, television trashed a man who has never been charged with anything. Mocking fairness, it ignored how Paterno helped an astonishing major-sport 9 in 10 players graduate, changed thousands of lives, spurned N.C.A.A. violation, built a Penn State Library and Spiritual Center, became football’s all-time winningest coach, and embodied the “scholar-athlete.” The French Revolution had a fairer jury.
That night Penn State’s Board held a meeting to, as a member said, “try to end the controversy,” JoePa denied even a chance to speak. At 10 p.m., a flunky went to Paterno’s home carrying a piece of paper with only the trustee vice-chairman’s name and phone number. In night clothes, Paterno dialed the number, hearing, “In the best interests of the university, you are terminated.” Joe hung up, told wife Sue, and saw her redial the phone.
“After 61 years [as a Penn State coach],” she said, “he deserved better.” Seventy-four days later her husband of a half-century was gone. In between, JoePa was diagnosed with lung cancer, brooked chemotherapy and radiation, and entered the hospital from complications – to death the fall guy for what T.S. Eliot called “hollow men … stuff men … headpiece filled with straw.
Puzzlement shrouds JoePa’s vicious treatment. Media bile was explicable, if indefensible. Famously unhip, Paterno was old-school and old-world from an Italian Catholic family. To ESPN, that made Joe declasse. Decent people saw a hero. Trustees were as culpable: Having dishonored Joe in life, the Board now hopes to save itself by honoring him in death – penance on the cheap. It is untrue that trustees and the media killed Paterno – lung cancer did. It is almost surely sure that they lessened his will to live.
On the day of his funeral, thousands stood in the cold in college football’s once-Brigadoon. Millions said good-bye on television. Hundreds of ex-players returned to mourn. Under JoePa, a football throng would chant, “We are — Penn State.” Now, near the cortege, a mourner broke the silence: “You are – Penn State.” The crowd roared like an old Franco Harris run.
As the sky grayed and wind whispered and Paterno was buried, a novella read by the Brown ’49 English Literature major came to mind: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Darkness can mean children wronged — and a man who unfairly paid the price. By contrast, heart lit Happy Valley – and that man’s incomparable life.
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