Monday, January 6, 2014

Facades: Joe Paterno

As published in The County Times ( in Nov 2011

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In 1966 my father was a year out of high school, I was years away from being a concept and Joe Paterno was the rookie head football coach at Pennsylvania State University.  Today, that recent high school graduate is now a 64-year-old professional retiree (the Beatles are signing his song), the future humanoid (me) is nearly 39 and Paterno is merely a week removed from the unceremonious end to his astonishing 46-year head-coaching reign at PSU.

Paterno, of course, wasn’t un-done in the traditional manner – a lack of winning – but by his now well dissected and uncharacteristic failure to appropriately act on knowledge that Jerry Sandusky, his long-time defensive coordinator, was committing disgusting acts with young boys.  Here’s a quick and disturbing summary (that’s your warning if you want to skip to the next paragraph) of what we currently know: Sandusky, through the University and/or his foundation, The Second Mile, allegedly had inappropriate contact with several boys from 1994 through 2009.  In 2002, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant, allegedly observed Sandusky performing a sex act with a young boy in a campus shower.  The next day, McQueary reported the incident to Paterno who in-turn informed the athletic director, Tim Curley.  That’s where the incident inexplicably appeared to die on the vine, as there was no communication with the proper authorities and no investigation. 

Last week Sandusky, Paterno’s right hand man and one-time heir-apparent, was arrested and charged with 40 counts of improper contact with young boys over a 15-year period.  What Paterno knew, when he knew it and what he did about it only he knows for sure.  Paterno was aware of the 2002 incident and it seems reasonable to conclude, given the dictatorial style of most head coaches and his long relationship with Sandusky, that he knew this wasn’t an isolated incident.  Admittedly that’s speculation.  What isn’t in dispute is that by at least 2002, Paterno knew something terrible was happening in his midst, on his watch and in the middle of the program he spent half a century building.  But instead of acting swiftly and comprehensively, he inexplicably and unforgivably turned a blind eye, after merely a passing glance, toward one of humanities greatest and most vulgar sins.

The information age has merged the once great divide between the perception of players, teams and institutions and reality.  Twitter feeds directly into the minds of athletes and the media’s speed and tenacity have left little mystery and few unanswered questions about the world of sports.  The ability to filter data and form comfortably ignorant, ideal versions of athletic superheroes is long gone.  With Pandora’s box perpetually ajar, what we are left with is – ready or not – the ground truth.  That truth, more often than not, has left us disappointed, shocked and occasionally deeply disturbed.  The truth is baseball players use steroids, major college programs break the rules and compromise the integrity of competition (USC, Ohio State and anyone coached by John Calipari, for example) and illegal videotapes are used by some of the NFL’s best (Bill Belichick’s other legacy). 

The wake of this raw honesty has produced endless rollers of disbelief.  It’s hard to discern the honest from the tainted.  Trust is a big issue.  At least there are still coaches like Paterno and schools like PSU to temper our cynicism.  Or there were.  Paterno’s never had a blemish, always done things the right way and has few moral and ethical peers.  Or he did.  For at least 9 years Paterno knew that his long-time assistant had done something horrific, yet in a defining moment, this one-time moral compass and the coach countless parents had entrusted their sons with, protected himself, his school and his former assistant and failed a group of innocent children.  Paterno’s exit from PSU amidst this great tragedy is more than the destruction of coaching legacy; it’s also the tarnishing of Joe Paterno the human being.  In the end, he and PSU were exposed as just another moral fa├žade in the sporting world (or otherwise) and are in a long line of people and entities that aren’t what we thought, and hoped, they were.

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