By Jason Keidel
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On Wednesday, I ambled over to my mailbox to find my weekly Sports Illustrated nestled inside, folded in half. I snapped the cover flat and saw a picture of Tom Brady.
Nope – above Brady there was a marquee beaming in bold ink “JOE PATERNO” followed by fawning pieces. (I say this at my peril, as I’ve written for SI and may kill my future freelance prospects.) For a group that gets it so right so often, it was a jolt to my senses to see the senseless on the cover.
The next day, before I trashed the magazine, I showed the cover to my mother (who attended Penn State in the ‘60s) and she flipped to the Paterno part, shaking her head solemnly, repeating a sentence in a slow murmur, “An error in judgment,” she said sadly.
I knew what she meant. Paterno’s grotesque bungling of Sandusky was distilled to a four-word synopsis, which, at the least, is a mischaracterization of the highest order. A parking ticket is an error in judgment. Speeding ticket. Heck, cheating by ten bucks on your income tax is an error in judgment. But ignoring child rape? (Allegedly, of course!)
Like most of you, I grew up thinking Paterno was a god, imbued with the angelic virtues of yesteryear, a throwback in its best sense. We were duped.
Sorry to break the big group hug, but while you’ve been drooling over Paterno, a village of boys was shattered by Paterno’s top dog. (Allegedly!) And this is fine with you, as long as Paterno is an arm’s length from blame. Funny how the buck always stopped at Paterno’s door – except when it came to Sandusky. Even the most savage Paterno detractors (like me) wouldn’t object to a silent prayer for Paterno’s wife and kids. But these endless, mindless vigils, chanting while bowing to a broken man whom, I bet, died from a cancerous conscience as much as anything…
And I love how Penn State alums think they have a Herculean grip on the truth. News Flash: State College was just the crime scene. Child molestation is a universal tragedy.
And if you’d like to play the Penn State grad card, this came via email from a despondent woman whose husband was a Penn State professor for over two decades; the couple still resides in the area (I won’t reveal his or her identity, as I shiver at the thought of what the Paterno Apologists would do to them): “It is as if God has died. The gnashing of teeth, beating of breasts and never ceases. The tent revival pep rally tributes and accolades are endless, puerile sycophantic, disgusting. He is being praised as if he were Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela. I am so upset by this I can hardly bear it…Where is the decency, the shock, the remorse for what Paterno was a part of? How do you suppose Sandusky’s damaged victims must feel? Powerless? Hopeless? Meaningless? It is so time to nail the bastards to the old cross…”
Let me put this slowly and succinctly, so that the most rabid Paterno Apologists can fathom it…
Jerry Sandusky is accused of raping boys at Penn State, while employed by Penn State, and while reporting to Joe Paterno. Paterno knew Sandusky had an inappropriate interest in boys in 1998, at the latest. Still, Sandusky was allowed on campus, with children, for another decade. (And if you don’t think Paterno knew about the ’98 report on Sandusky, just go away.)
So, since I couldn’t get my sports fix from my normal source, I went to my television’s “On Demand” menu, where I could find some Muhammad Ali. (If you ever get the blues, just watch any Ali fight, from Sonny Liston to Zora Folley, though I suspect some Paterno Apologists still call him Cassius Clay.) On my way to The Greatest, however, I saw a separate menu, from ESPN: “Joe Paterno.” Breathing deeply, I punched the button to find a cornucopia of Paterno highlights, including an obituary, a tribute, a replay of the ’83 Sugar Bowl, “JoePa Win 400,” and “JoePa Win 409” and, if that weren’t enough, the galling kicker, “Joe Paterno Life Lessons.”
I really saw this. I didn’t have the stomach to punch the button, so I improvised:
Lesson 1: Have an assistant tell you that your top assistant sodomized a child in your locker room.
Lesson 2: Cut him off before it gets too graphic, tell him he’s done his job, and then change topic.
Lesson 3: Report this to men who essentially report to you, despite the stars on their lapels.
Lesson 4: Die before you really have to talk about it.
Figures the “Worldwide Leader” – a name appropriately heisted from ABC when Mickey Mouse bought everyone – would whiff on this, as they didn’t see fit to furnish the authorities with the Bernie Fine tapes. ESPN minors in money and majors in plagiarism, stealing Jay Glazer or Jon Heyman scoops frequently and with impunity. It’s good to be the King.
What are we, as a nation and a species, knowing that we’re branding the handling of these crimes as merely a speed bump on the road to immortality? To recall Paterno sans Sandusky is like talking Nixon without Watergate. In terms of career relevance, they are essential to each man’s legacy.
No, Paterno didn’t do the deed, but he knew the deed and did nothing about it. And before you come with that chain of command crap, remember that Joe Paterno was the Vito Corleone of State College. Actually, that’s an understatement, as Mr. Andolini had the Five Families to consider. Paterno was every link in the State College chain.
The de facto Paterno Publicists feed you this bile and you swallow it whole and ask for more, like chicks begging Ma to vomit some more scraps before she leaves the nest for the next hunt. The beer goggles are glued to your dome, and there’s no tonic to sober you up.
As a writer, I’m a predisposed sucker. I want the good guys to win, along with the occasional bad guy with a big heart. I love happy endings. This isn’t one of them.
I realize those of you who still root violently for the departed head coach can’t be coaxed into a rational discussion. Perhaps this is just a memo, an archive, a thought shared with the masses with no mission to accomplish. Believe it or not, there are many people who feel as this writer does, but they are drowned out by the howling dogs circling the dead. Joe Paterno isn’t the only one who died at State College; more than a few faceless, nameless young men wish they could have their childhoods back.
Maybe if we just repeat the lie often enough – my boy Joe did the right thing – it mutates into the truth.
And while we always need heroes despite the taxing whims of Father Time, we’re allowed to change icons as we mature. All of my childhood heroes wielded gloves, helmets and bats. Later on I adopted a few mentors, wordsmiths who found their power in the pen – rather flawed men who essentially drank themselves to death. But the one good synapse time bestows upon us is the ability to distinguish between talent and heroism.
On his way to myopic eulogies about eternal greatness, Joe Paterno was deep in the vortex of the most horrific scandal in the history of American sports. And thus this thing will stick to my ribs until I die. Lord knows that hardly makes me a hero. But I sure feel like one next to Joe Paterno.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.firstname.lastname@example.org