Everybody has weak spots in their character, fault lines in their personality where the right earthquake at the wrong time can lead to personal catastrophe. Most of us are fortunate that our worst experience doesn’t hit us with its biggest jolt in exactly the area where our flaws or poor judgment or vanity is most dangerously in play. It’s part good luck if we don’t disgrace ourselves.
But when it does happen, as appears to be the case with Joe Paterno, that’s when we witness personal disasters that seem so painful and, in the context of a well-lived life, so unfair that we feel deep sadness even as we simultaneously recognize that the person at the center of the storm can never avoid full accountability.
On Wednesday night, Paterno was fired after 46 years as Penn State’s head football coach. At such times, we feel both pity and a terrible awe as we watch events conspire around an admirable man in exactly the wrong way, so that he then conspires against himself to make the situation far worse.
For the millions who ask, “How could Paterno, the football ethicist, fail to do the Right Thing in a situation where almost anybody else would?” we got more evidence on Wednesday afternoon. Joe Pa did it again.
Paterno, 84, said he’d retire after this season, a decision that added another damaging mistake in judgment to a chain of failure that dates from 2002, and perhaps earlier. He said Penn State’s Board of Trustees “should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address.”
That sounds right, for a split second, until you see that it is all wrong.
Penn State, with the child sexual-abuse case surrounding former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky in the courts, had few bigger issues than deciding whether Paterno coaches its last three regular season games, then a possible conference championship and a bowl game, too. The circus around those games, starting with Nebraska on Saturday, boggles the mind.
“I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university,” Paterno said in his statement on Wednesday.
But what if the biggest help you can be is to get out of the way? Right now.
That decision, when for Paterno to leave, how to leave, was no longer in his control. Those days ended when Sandusky was arrested. Period. Wednesday night, less than 12 hours after Paterno announced he would finish the season, the school’s trustees said that he would not. They fired him.
Paterno has been a man above authority at Penn State for decades. He’s been allowed to be selectively deaf or dumb or blind when it suits him. Those days are over.
Even now, as he leaves the public spotlight of coaching, Paterno will still be questioned, and will have to decide how much he will choose to answer, about what happened in 2002 and, maybe as important, 1998.
In 1998, university police did an extensive investigation of accusations against Sandusky, then Penn State’s defensive coordinator, involving his showering with children; two separate incidents, both with 11-year-olds.
The mother of one child (identified as “Victim 6” in the Sandusky grand jury report) and a university policeman, who was eavesdropping in a makeshift sting operation, have testified that, when confronted by the mother, Sandusky said: “I understand I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.”
I’d call that a red flag, and every other color in the moral-alarm spectrum. Penn State’s decision was to close the investigation, bring no charges and not call the police or other outside authorities.
Sandusky, assumed to be Paterno’s successor, retired from coaching the very next year. Why quit when you’re only 55? Sandusky’s explanation: To stay around State College helping young kids at risk in the Second Mile foundation he started in 1977. That’s where the grand jury said he combed the child population to find his victims.
Was Sandusky’s retirement a coincidence or, in some part, a reaction to the 1998 university police investigation, which took weeks? Who knew? What did they know? What did they suspect?
Could Paterno, the lord of this tiny world, not have knowledge of a potentially monstrous scandal about his do-gooding right-hand man? Maybe. You may have heard about what happens to messengers who bring bad news to the king. Maybe nobody told Joe. But who knew what in 1998 is way beyond a fair question. It’s an essential question, and one nobody at Penn State or its football program is answering.
It’s hard to spot entrenched pedophiles in an institutional setting. They make sure they become beloved figures as cover. However, when you have an investigation of multiple similar complaints against Sandusky by two separate 11-year-olds, the difficulty in identifying a possible tragic problem disappears. Penn State knew enough in 1998 that it should’ve followed up in triplicate. And Paterno should have known or been told.
It’s pertinent because in 2002, with Sandusky retired, Paterno followed the narrow letter of the law after being given eyewitness information by a graduate assistant about Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy. You probably don’t need to hear that narrative again.
Penn State did nothing but take Sandusky’s keys away. Paterno didn’t follow up at all, a total ethical abdication. The school didn’t even ask, “Who was the child?”
How could this happen? Look at a larger context. For generations, shabby coaches have turned their eyes, avoided learning incriminating details and said “tell all this to the athletic director” when they heard about a player or booster breaking the rules.
Paterno didn’t turn away. He’d act right, even if it hurt.
He set the gold standard and everybody around him, pretty much, shaped up for 46 years. He built a model program, transformed a school — he may have helped raise a billion dollars for Penn State — and helped almost everybody he touched.
Then along came Sandusky.
“This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life,” Paterno’s statement said. “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
When the earthquake struck Paterno’s life, it attacked him directly at his fault lines: his pride in his life’s work and, perhaps, an utter inability to imagine the worst of a lifelong close friend. So in 2002 he appears, and this is actually a generous interpretation, to have reacted with don’t-want-to-know negligence of his ethical responsibilities, as a coach and as a man.
Forces collide, conspire, confuse and an icon of integrity fails to act, fails to see, but in his case, the stakes were far higher than wins. The lives of children, already at risk, were in the balance.
Something shameful, if everything falls just wrong, could happen to any of us. How do we know? Because it even happened to Joe Paterno.