The Man, The Legend

A group of Penn State alumni want to build a new Joe Paterno statue. It's going to be one strange and ugly landmark. (USA TODAY Sports)

A group of Penn State alumni want to build a new Joe Paterno statue. It's going to be one strange and ugly landmark. (USA TODAY Sports)

We have about two and a half years of distance from the beginning of the Sandusky saga that tarnished Joe Paterno’s reputation and sent Penn State and the town in which the university is housed headlong into an existential crisis that it’s still sorting through.

I’ve spent the afternoon reading through Michael Weinreb’s numerous pieces on the subject, because they were written by someone who grew up on Paterno lore and who thought State College was an exceptional place before the bad news broke. Like most people, I lack that perspective. I spent my formative years nowhere near central Pennsylvania. What I saw when Jerry Sandusky’s transgressions came to light — and then as the Freeh report confirmed that, yes, JoePa had known about them and took pains to make them go away — was straightforwardly abhorrent hypocrisy. I was angry and a little saddened, but I didn’t feel it in my bones.

Weinreb saw the utter demolition of an ideal he had believed in for decades. He wrote in a post-Freeh report blog post: “now that Paterno is gone, his last best chance to reform big-time college football is to be remembered as one of the worst villains the sport has ever known.” That’s the sort of acidic repudiation you’re going to get only from someone who is close enough to the situation to feel betrayed.

I’ve been consulting Weinreb’s work because some folks in State College are trying to fund a new Joe Paterno statue, and I’m trying to understand what they’re thinking. Even if Weinreb rejected Paterno as both a man and a symbol in the wake of the scandal, there’s a lot in his articles that explains why Penn Staters and State College residents would still feel affection for JoePa. To oversimplify, the story of those who cling to Paterno’s defiled saintdom is the story of people who can’t decouple values they hold dear from a person who was supposed to practice them absolutely. That JoePa-as-paterfamilias stuff you hear from Paterno truthers is troubling, but it’s not fiction. In the minds of many, he stood — and continues to stand — for something, even if in reality, he didn’t stand for much.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to anchor yourself with ideals, the sensible thing to do, now that we know Paterno was cravenly cynical in trying to protect his football program, would be to go on believing in all the noble things the JoePa hagiography complex purported him to embody, but to leave the man behind. Of course, doing the sensible thing can be quite difficult.

The debate over the removal of the first Paterno statue was pretty beside-the-point in comparison to all the other moral quandaries Penn State and State College were grappling with at the time, but removing it was the right call. A statue of anyone is, at best, a dumb form of history, and one of a pedophile defender is considerably worse. Even if Paterno was everything his disciples thought he was, you don’t need a human being to stand in for All That Is Good. Anyway, it’s probably more productive for you to discover what goodness is for yourself, without being provided a template.

This new statue doesn’t really matter, in the way getting rid of the old one didn’t matter. It will be, if it gets made, a hunk of metal that some people might deface and others might find comfort in. It will change nothing.

It’s a bad idea regardless. (Even worse is the tone-deaf decision to have JoePa reading Virgil’s Aeneid, which has, as is typical of a classic, some brutal rape scenes in it.) It’s indicative of a small-mindedness and an intellectual stubbornness that festers in a who-knows-how-large corner of the community. It is a strange and not-a-little-distasteful answer to the question of what State College and the university that defines it should become, now that it’s clear grave mistakes were made. What mistakes? it replies.

The people who are bent on canonizing Joe Paterno will go on canonizing him, either with bronze or hosannas. They can have their version of Paterno. I suppose they deserve it. It’s up to less blinkered members of the community to do some hard thinking, knowing answers may take a very long time to materialize.

9 thoughts on “The Man, The Legend

  1. I have always felt that Brooks Robinson is the example of all that is good in sports. The statue of Brooks stands outside of Camden Yards along with Eddie, Frank, Jim Palmer, Cal, and The Earl; all representing decency, honest play, and not a hint of scandal in their long careers. I appreciate fans’ devotion to those who created a certain aura of character and conduct that stamp a program as worthy of adulation.

    But in the face of the Paterno scandal at Penn State, one would think that letting that ill-ending crisis, one that tarnished everyone involved, would have soured the atmosphere of hero worship, instead inserting humiliation and embarrassment by accepting the role Paterno played in ignoring crimes committed while in charge.

    When sports mania overtakes common sense, one knows values and common decency have been replaced by a value system that points to a degraded society.

  2. Some really interesting points here. However, it is important to acknowledge that much of the Freeh report’s credibility has since come under heavy scrutiny, and some aspects of it have all but been discredited. Will have to look at Weinreb’s work.

  3. Normally, I’d call you out for writing from an outsiders perspective. You have no desire for actually looking into anything yourself and refuse to look at facts. But hey, you read an article written by a Penn Stater days after a now largely rejected report was released, so you must have so much perspective. Here’s the deal, the Freeh Report has been found by numerous people, including a former attorney general to be laden with flaws and inconclusive evidence. It lacks testimony from all accused of any wrongdoing. And Paterno. Notice I separated him? Thats because the only people to have accused him of wrongdoing are the media. Even prosecutors dealing with the Spanier, Curley, and Schultz cases have found no evidence, and yet you have? You, the media, right. You focused on him, when of Spanier, Curley, and Schultz, he undoubtedly was the least involved. Could he have done more? Of course, he admitted it himself, but he reported it to his superiors, as well as the police. The incident in the shower that Mike McQueary saw? Sandusky was acquitted of those charges. Now that does not mean nothing happened, simply that if the courts could not find clear evidence, how could Paterno know for sure? Let alone how many times McQueary’s story has changed. Point is, there’s a reason this statue is being proposed. The university may refuse to acknowledge their haste and misjudgment in dealing with this situation, but the people of State College actually look at what is known for a fact. Paterno is the reason Penn State is what it is today. Period. He screwed up, yes, but to suggest he was a horrible man based on one instance of misjudgment is absolutely ridiculous. There’s a reason the only place he ever wanted his name was on the library. There’s a reason people still stand by him. Its because, as much as you may not want it to be true, he shaped the lives of students for 40+ years at Penn State, and that will never be erased.

  4. The Freeh Report does not have much in the way of evidence to back up what it concludes.

    Indeed, we see that Paterno notified AD, who notified the police. The DA then chose not to prosecute. Now what is Paterno supposed to have done at that point? Why isn’t the DA being tarred and feathered?

    Most people would not call notifying the police a coverup.

    • I have been perplexed by that ever since the story broke. To my knowledge, the worst thing you can say about Paterno is that he probably could have used his standing in the community to put pressure on authorities to more aggressively investigate Sandusky, and didn’t. (And if some people want to say that alone is enough to condemn him, that’s fine, there’s room for debate on that).

      Meanwhile, the authorities whose primary job it is to arrest and prosecute Sandusky apparently dropped the ball. Where’s the outrage at them? If Paterno should have done more, then they had an infinitely greater responsibility to do more, right?

      • Perhaps, had the administration done what they were paid to do, Paterno would not have suffered the fate he did. Paterno could hardly stand on the sidelines, coached from the box, and who knows how clear his mind or memory of anything was in the last ten years of his stewardship. Just because someone has been at the helm forever, and once brought sports glory to the school does not mean they are competent or capable in his or her later years. For this I blame incompetent and weak administrators who flattered boosters for their contributions rather than remove an elderly man who was way past his sell-by date.

  5. I take no pleasure whatsoever writing this, but what follows here must be said. First, I hope and pray that the victims find peace. Second, Joe Paterno did not deserve to go out like that. I think I understand how Alexander Solzhenitsyn must have felt writing a day in the life of ID. Solzhenitsyn loved his country but still honestly and truthfully described one of its darkest depravations.
    What should have been done at Penn State has still not taken place. I think it is disturbing that people close to Penn State University need to have this pointed out to them. This is so serious that harsh words seem appropriate here – stop looking the other way and stop sticking your heads in the sand! Fix the problem and do it now for all to see.
    First there needs to be full recognition of what happened. That has not happened! Then a complete house cleaning of the Penn State’s administration needs to take place. Don’t agree? Consider this. To replace the former Penn State University President Graham Spanier, how do you decide to hire not only an insider (employed at Penn State previously from 1986 – 2006), but someone who has just demonstrated on a national level that they are part of an FSU Administration that is in apparent violation of Federal Law for not properly investigating a sex crime, the most recent and publicized one in 2013! This is absolutely unbelievable and shameful.
    Here is a trimmed down chronology of events; 1966 Sandusky hired in, 1973 Graham Spanier was hired to the faculty of Penn State, 1986 Eric Brown – eventual Penn State University President replacing Spanier is hired to Penn state faculty and remains there for 20 years until 2006, 1995 Graham Spanier hired as Penn State President, 2001 the shower incident reported by Mike McQueery took place, November 9 2011 the Penn State Board of Trustees demands that Spanier resigns or be fired, February 2014 the Penn State Board of Trustees hires Eric Barron from Florida State.
    So let’s tie this all together. Graham Spanier was known to be a ‘deviant’ before being hired by the Penn State Board of Trustees as Penn State’s President in 1995. He wrote many or most of his deviant publications while on faculty at Penn State. The Penn State Board of Trustees was warned about his ‘views and attitudes’ before hiring him. They hired him anyway. Look up Graham Spanier’s publications. The PSU Board of Trustees members were all made aware of Spanier’s writings. It is shocking that someone with his ‘published’ views on sexual deviance was placed in the position of president of any university. What were the Regents thinking? Then again what were they thinking when they decided to replace Graham Spanier with Eric Barron? Spanier was eventually indicted for perjury, obstruction of justice, child endangerment, failure to report child abuse, and conspiracy. On July 30 2013 a judge found sufficient probable cause to hold Spanier on the felony obstruction, conspiracy, and child endangerment charges. Then in February 2014 the Penn State Board of Trustees hires Eric Barron from Florida State. Eric Barron, while President of Florida State University, has presided over one suppressed rape investigation after the next. Eric Baron presided over the complete mishandling of a rape investigation just last year, 2013. There are also indications of other sexual assault cases involving Florida State students which were similarly mishandled. Don’t take my word for it. Read the New York Times article, cited below. Everyone now knows Florida State places football above protecting the welfare of their female students and that Eric Barron was running the show when the vile sordid mess that was FSU’s ‘championship season’ played out last year. What a horrific selection at this juncture for Penn State. So, to heal the wounds and restore the reputation of Penn State, the Penn State Board of Trustees hires as its President someone that has just led another university into apparent violation of Federal Law for not properly investigating either an alleged victim’s rape accusation or a witness’s admission that they had even videotaped part of it. After the national championship game was over, (not in January 2013 when the alleged crime was first reported) the university asked the accused quarterback to discuss the case. The accused quarterback declined to speak about it on advice from his lawyer.
    Is anyone else seeing a pattern here yet? You will if you take your head out of the sand. You will if you will stop turning the other way.
    The New York Times has recently reported, April 16, 2014, (‘A star player accused, and a flawed rape investigation’), that the federal Department of Education has opened an investigation into whether FSU, under Barron’s administration, properly responded to sexual assault allegations. The Times also quotes the head of a women’s shelter in Tallahassee who said that FSU tended to bury complaints in its internal review process. Read that article. It is shameful what has and still does go on in Tallahassee and at FSU. These problems predate Jimbo Fisher too.
    My impression of Penn State is that they are making themselves look even worse, if that is possible. With the hiring of Eric Barron from Florida State, the Administration of Penn State University including the Board of Regents has demonstrated loudly and clearly for everyone to see that they still do not get it!

  6. Honestly, there is no saving the leadership at Penn State. They should be treated like a condemned building… just knock it down and start over again.

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