By Jason Keidel
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Sue and son Jay are on the Paterno Redemption Tour, stopping at WFAN, ESPN, Katie Couric and whomever else will have them. Joining them is a backup band of surrogates, including lawyers, former governors and other acolytes.
Sue Paterno, mother of Jay and widow of Joe, sponsored a “report” in rebuttal to the Freeh report, which closed the book on the horrors at Penn State, led by Jerry Sandusky and ignored by a conga line of power brokers, including the formerly beloved “JoePa” Paterno, whose image and legacy are forever mutated, if not mutilated.
But instead of bringing us closure or closer to truth, justice or the American Way, Sue Paterno has morphed from grieving widow — perhaps the lone sympathetic figure under that roof — to a bitter woman peeling the scab off a wound that was just beginning to heal. Penn State will never be the same, but America at large had stored this story into the subconscious. Now the nation is somewhat divided again.
Sports Illustrated runs a weekly blurb called “Sign of the Apocalypse,” during which they cite some silly faux pax or malapropism, designed to spawn an innocuous chuckle at our humanity. If it weren’t so tragic, we could submit the Paterno “report” for consideration.
This expensive, expansive retort is little more than a de facto puff piece from publicists who happen to be barristers. While on ESPN, Jay Paterno was asked if he’d be so ardent in his father’s defense if one of his kids were raped by Sandusky. It’s a great question, and the son sang and danced around it for a few moments, until the next question was in the chamber.
Of course, there’s a colossal difference between the two reports, beyond the dubious objectivity of the latter. Louis Freeh conducted an actual investigation. The Paterno people merely took a jeweler’s eye to Freeh’s work, punching holes where possible, and even where impossible. Freeh’s job was to investigate the entire power apparatus at Penn State; Paterno’s group was paid to make Joe Paterno look better. There’s no dispute about that. Freeh, a former FBI director, interviewed over 400 people. Paterno’s people didn’t. Freeh, a former FBI director, combed through 3 million pages of documents. Paterno’s people didn’t. Freeh wrote a comprehensive, 267-page report. Paterno’s people didn’t.
During his interview with WFAN host Mike Francesa on Monday, Dick Thornberg doubled as an echo chamber for the Paterno team’s mantra: All the evidence damning Joe Paterno is circumstantial. Which is true. It’s also true that many a man is in prison based on circumstantial evidence, including murderers and child rapists. So banging that drum rings hollow to anyone with a modicum of legal acumen, or anyone who ever watched an episode of “Law & Order.”
On some level, we all relate to Sue Paterno’s plight. She doesn’t want her husband to be recalled with rancor, with the historic bile that befalls a man who harbored a child rapist. You can even understand why she’s so jaded. She was married to the man for over five decades. Indeed, he didn’t rape those boys. He is worshiped by fans and former players. And he won more games than any coach in college history. And what man wants his own dad to be dissected daily a year after his death? But unlike before, the Paternos, their apologists and Franco Harris can’t blame the media. This story was exhumed because Sue and Jay Paterno made it so.
Among the myriad layers of irony is that these atrocities not only happened under the guise of football — America’s game where rules and respect and dignity are the fruits of the sport — but also that Joe Paterno was the emblem of those ideals. Paterno was the face of a flawless place carved out of the Pennsylvania woods like an oasis of education proper values, where boys entered and men exited. He planted his flag in a place called Happy Valley. At his peak, Paterno was akin to John Wooden, a bespectacled Jimmy Stewart, a teacher first and coach second. As his student, you climbed the ladder of his ideas until you could see the world from a most privileged and pristine view.
Little did we know that inside that pastoral bubble was a satanic creature who used a charity to lure fatherless boys into showers where he sodomized them. And from 1998 until Sandusky was arrested, Joe Paterno allegedly knew about these atrocities and looked the other way.
I practically trademarked the term “Paterno Apologist” during the very public war I waged with those so jaded by Paterno’s football record that it cloaked the criminal record his top lieutenant was writing with the blood of boys. It’s rare that I’m proud of something I’ve written beyond whatever prose or perspective I can provide a marginal thing we call sports. And when the Freeh report was released, the Paterno Apologists scattered like roaches when the kitchen light winks on.
But the mass media ran from this story like trembling children after a nightmare. No one wanted to brand Paterno a villain because they feared reprisal from the Paterno Apologists, the zombies who roam in lockstep from State College to a netherworld of semantic subterfuge. “He told the athletic director!” they say, which is the equivalent of Barack Obama telling Joe Biden that Bin Laden was hiding at a compound in Pakistan.
Everyone knew that Paterno was the most powerful man in State College, if not the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, until it was inconvenient to say so. In 2010, Jay Paterno was interviewed by ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, during which he said his pops was “Stupid like a fox” and that he still ran the show with his endless, ancient acumen. But once we learned that Joe allegedly knew — when he knew it, and what he did about it — then suddenly his power shrunk to the provincial chunk of turf called a gridiron. He was duped, you see, like the rest of us. He knew when his backup punter broke curfew, but he didn’t know his top lieutenant was suspected of molesting children.
We understand why Sue Paterno would defend her deceased husband. We understand why she can’t wrap her bruised brain around the notion that her worshiped husband is not a God, that his fall from grace to his face — plunging from the heavens into Hades — was faster than perhaps any beloved figure in American history. But awakening the ghosts, the ghouls and stirring this powder keg topic is toxic. Sometimes silence, leaving with quiet dignity in the face of so much horror, is prudence.
As if the declaration has merit or meaning, the last, semantic line of defense from the Paterno Apologist is, “We’ll never truly know what happened.”
We know enough. More than enough.
Has the “Paterno Redemption Tour” changed your mind about the man that JoePa was? Or are you not sold by Sue and Jay’s efforts? Offer your thoughts and comments in the section below…