Joe Paterno’s death Sunday morning from complications of cancer at the age of 85 is no more or less tragic than any other death. All dying is sorrow. People should remember Paterno any way they choose, with prayers or love or tears—or yes, continued anger.
But the former Penn State football coach should not be turned into a martyr. He should not be made into a victim because of the circumstances of his dismissal by the university board of trustees on Nov. 9. He should be remembered for what he did do, his success as a football coach on the field in which he won 409 games, the most in history; his far more impressive record off the field, in which, according to a recent study, 80 percent of his players graduated within six years; his multimillion-dollar donation to the Penn State library system; his undying love for the school.
But he must be remembered for what he did not do, which wasn’t losing to Ohio State or Michigan or Wisconsin, but the willful inaction that by all accounts helped to aid and abet an alleged sexual predator named Jerry Sandusky, who once had been his defensive coach.
It is how I will remember him the most. Maybe it is because the scandal unfolded so soon before his death. Or maybe because it was such a failure of responsibility.
At the moment in his life in which Joe Paterno should have done the most, given his impeccable reputation for morality, he did the least. The last interview he gave, eight days before he died, to Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, only further confirmed his keen desire to distance himself from the horror of what then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary told him in March 2002. McQueary said he’d seen Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy both naked in a shower stall of the Penn State practice facility doing something of a sexual nature. (McQueary later described the act to a state grand jury as Sandusky raping the child.) “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it…” Paterno told Jenkins. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
The focus at Penn State should be on how the alleged sexual acts of Sandusky, charged with more than 50 counts of sexual abuse of minors, were allowed to continue despite repeated signs. The firing of Paterno, and his death, should not detract from that.
In September I wrote a column for The Daily Beast saying that Paterno was past his prime and needed to retire for the sake of his own well-being. No matter how tough he wanted to be, it was obvious he was frail. On two occasions he had been hit by players on the sideline and suffered serious injuries because of his inability to get out of the way. Until he was fired last season, he had to coach from the press box. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that he had lung cancer even then.
If there is a tragedy to Joe Paterno, it is that he should have retired a decade ago. At the very least, it would have given him 10 years of distance from the horror of Sandusky that got him fired. The legacy he wanted to leave, and others wanted to leave for him, would have remained largely intact.
His need to retire then had nothing to do with damage control in the Sandusky case or his won-lost record. It had to do with his being woefully out of touch with the real world, based on what he said to The Washington Post. Because of his advanced age even then, 75, McQueary, out of what he called respect, never conveyed to Paterno the graphic details of what he saw.
McQueary made a mistake in a judgment. But based on what Paterno told the Post, it would not have mattered anyway. He said he had no concept of “rape and a man” in 2002. It seemed odd—incredible, frankly—that Paterno would have no concept. He was a devout Catholic, and the allegations of sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church were exploding around that time, spurred by a Boston Globe investigative series that went around the world.
If he did not know, it meant that he had been living in the bubble of his football program for far too long, isolated from reality, isolated from what was truly important in life, which never has been and never will be a football game.
Whether we like it or not, the failure of Paterno to do more than the bare minimum is a more important part of his legacy than the cute coke-bottle glasses he wore, the way he led his team onto the field in a ratty sweater, and any football game won. Football is a game. It does not affect life. The abuse of a child is an act that affects the victim for life and can lead to self-hatred and suicide. I, for one, know of no football player who committed suicide because he threw a last-minute interception or missed a game-saving tackle.
Even before Paterno’s death Sunday, the travesty of Penn State was already veering away from the countless acts of sexual abuse Sandusky allegedly committed against minors, not to mention all the indications of a cover-up by the top echelon of the university, including Paterno. Instead a new steam engine has been in motion, questioning whether Paterno had been treated fairly by the trustees when he was fired. The chorus was growing louder, forcing board of trustee members to go on a public relations blitz to The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer to make their case they had done the right thing. Which they did. Artful, no, because of the way he was notified, with a phone message to call a board member. Necessary, yes.
My guess is that the death of Paterno will pump that steam engine even more. Those who loved him—and there are many thousands, and they have every right to love him—will push him more and more into the sanctity of the martyred because of his death.
They will say that what killed Paterno wasn’t just the lung cancer, or whatever else might have been wrong because we don’t really know, but a broken heart at being so summarily let go. They will say Penn State football and Paterno were two equal parts of an equation, and taking away the first half involuntarily made his death inevitable. In other words, it was the action of the board that helped to kill him. All the stuff of martyrdom. All the stuff of making him a victim. All poppycock.
Death inevitably enhances a person’s legacy. The controversies are set aside as a matter of dignity. The highlights are highlighted and the lowlights are lowlighted. If you read the obituaries of Richard Nixon, you would have thought Watergate a mere trifle. There were many highlights in Paterno’s life. His family has much to be proud of. He was truly special in the cesspool of sports. But his failure to act decisively in the Sandusky case should and cannot be dismissed as some incidental lapse.
Maybe a broken heart did add to the swiftness of his death. But if that is the case, so did shame. If Joe Paterno was the man so many said he was, he must have thought every day from his firing until his death about what he did not do.
It would not erase what happened to Sandusky in 2002, which was fundamentally nothing. Nothing can erase what did not happen. But it would make Joe Paterno a man of grace and humility. Which I hope he truly was.