Death and Remembrance

The passing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno this past weekend presented many people with a problem.  Yes, Paterno was a towering figure in college football and in Pennsylvania, and former players, broadcasters, and coaches testified to the good he did.  Yet there was also no escaping the fact that in the last ten weeks of his life he had to confront a major mistake he made in the past, that of not doing more to protect young boys from the alleged misconduct of a former assistant coach who remained a presence on campus.  No, the Sandusky saga is not over yet, but even Paterno reflected in his last days that he regretted he did not do more to stop Sandusky.  One has to keep in mind that when we hear how much Paterno did to turn college boys into men that he also did not intervene to protect younger boys who will have to deal with a different sort of legacy.  Indeed, in some corners the intensity of the outcry might lead one to believe that it was Paterno, not Sandusky, who committed these alleged acts.

So what do we make of Joe Paterno?  How do we come to terms with the entire man and assess his impact on the people around him?  Biographers face this challenge all the time.  Good ones understand that their job is not to appease hero-worshippers or wild critics, but to put everything together and let the chips fall where they may.

If there’s one thing that should be evident, it is that it is impossible to assess most people in a dispassionate way at the time of their death.  In most cases folks naturally want to pay tribute to the deceased; while some outspoken critics will voice their views, often the result sounds a bit insensitive and inappropriate, even when the criticisms have merit.  True, when someone viewed as evil by many people dies, the outpouring of jubilation and at times satisfaction is also evident (recall the reaction to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death), but that, too, is not the best time for an overall assessment that displays an understanding of the course of his life.

I’ve been confronted by some of these very challenges when I’ve been contacted to comment on a death of a prominent political figure such as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, two of the most polarizing figures of my lifetime as well as two of the most important presidents of the second half of the twentieth century.  One must keep in mind that one is being asked not to cast one last posthumous vote for the departed, but to step away and try, usually in a few words, to make a more insightful comment that recognizes someone’s impact and importance.  In the case of Paterno, you can see many people try to wrestle with how to react appropriately.  As time passes, people will try to make sense of what the events of the last ten weeks mean to a career that spanned decades … and they will recall that many people were calling for Paterno to step down from his coaching position for years for various reasons.  Paterno’s biographer faces quite a challenge.

36 thoughts on “Death and Remembrance

  1. wgdavis January 24, 2012 / 2:06 am

    The only mistake he made was in trusting Curley and Schultz, the two superiors to whom he reported McQueary’s information.

    As JoePa himself said, he should have done more. That’s not even easy to say in retrospect. At the time, he did not have the knowledge that Curley and Schultz would sweep this under the rug. But JoePa trusted them to do the right thing.

    Far too may people rushed to judgement on this and made it JoePa’s crime. That is wrong, and moronic. It was Sandusky’s crime.

    As for not doing enough – there are five people who not only had the opportunity, but also the legal responsibility to report the crime [which JoePa did not have]: Curley, Schultz, Spanier [the PSU President], and McQueary and his father.

    No one castigates them for their actions…or inactions, as the case may be. Their failure to notify the police is a far greater moral lapse than JoePa’s.

    The ONLY one of those five who did do the right thing was McQueary, and he is the one who should have gone to the Police. The others should have reported it to the police as soon as JoePa reported to them what McQueary had told them. Spanier should have known better.

    JoePa did not tarnish his reputation. The others did, and the media did, and continues to do so.

    Sandusky assaulted more than those kids, he assaulted Penn State, and Joe Paterno, as well. Funny how no one talks about him or his crimes, which are at the root of all this.

    Finally, the gutless mob who call themselves the Penn State Trustees could not bring themselves to let Joe go out as he chose when he announced his retirement, which was the right thing to do [certainly Joe knew he had lung cancer at that point]. And they feared going to his house to tell him, knowing the students out front would probably lynch them.

    Joe Paterno was an incredible direct influence on thousands of young men who played for him, and tens of thousands who took his courses. Indirectly he was a positive influence on hundreds of thousands of others, if not more. He set a standard in major college football that was touch to match, and nearly impossible to exceed.

    The man is on his way to his grave, likely hastened there because of all that transpired in the last two months of his life. It’s time to leave the man his true and honest legacy and honor him for it. not for unknowingly misplacing his trust in folks who let him down, and let the victims of the real crime down.

  2. James F. Epperson January 24, 2012 / 5:33 am

    I try to remember your comment, that it is a bad idea to fall in love with dead people. Every individual has his or her flaws, sometimes recurring issues, sometimes the one Big Mistake that is often emblematic of other flaws. (This applies to JoePa, but also RE Lee.) You have to assess people honestly and completely.

  3. John Foskett January 24, 2012 / 8:22 am

    What i found disturbing was the (all too predictable) fawning response of the sports media. Like most significant figures, Paterno has left a mixed legacy. On the one hand, as a football coach he probably did more good than bad – certainly if one compares his program with the many who have been (insufficiently) nailed by the NCAA for recruiting and other violations. On the other hand, he had far too much power within that school and long overstayed his welcome. The chickens came hiome to roost on that one. If anybody knows anything about the culture at Penn State, the notion that Joepa did his duty by reporting to his “superiors” is simply lauighable. Curley held his AD position at Paterno’s whim and Schultz had even less control over him. (That;s why, unlike Paterno, neither was cast in bronze on the campus). Had Paterno merely said the word when that 1998 investigation finished, or in 2002 when McCreary told him what he saw, Sandusky would never have been allowed inside university property again to rape young boys. He didn’t. And he knew what was up – hence Sandusky’s sudden “retirement” in 1999 at the pinnacle of his success as a DC and as the “heir apparent” to Joepa. Anybody who believes otherwise is simply fooling themselves or smoking a blue and white pipe. Maybe it’s best to tone down the eulogies right now and give them in a measured way.

    • Jeffry Burden January 27, 2012 / 9:30 pm

      Right on. To be blunt, a school that has an 75+-year-old coaching it’s football team is just waiting for disaster. At best, he will lack the vigor to truly lead the organization physically and spiritually – such as in, say, allowing a pedophile access to his facilities. At worst, he’ll be doddering fool.

      • wgdavis January 28, 2012 / 12:29 am

        That “doddering old fool” missed the Big Ten title game by one loss this season.

        • Jeffry Burden January 28, 2012 / 7:43 am

          So noted. I tend to think he fits in the former category, anyway.

          • John Foskett January 28, 2012 / 9:19 am

            What he meant was that Bradley, Paterno, Jr., and the other “real coaches” missed the Big Ten title by one game. Here’s a conundrum, by the way – the guy had the brainpower and decision-making skills of a 35-year-old inside the stadium but when it came to ‘rape on man” he was absolutely flummoxed and had no “experience” with that because he was from another generation. But I guess they like double standards at State College.

          • wgdavis January 28, 2012 / 2:05 pm

            And you know this how?

    • wgdavis January 28, 2012 / 12:28 am

      That 11998 investigation did not result in any charges at all. It was ended when the detective and the mother agreed to accept Sandusky’s promise not to engage in ‘horseplay’ any more. What actions other than letting Sandusky go would you have the University take in 1998? Remember, no charges were ever filed.

      The other investigations finished in the fall of 2011.

  4. martin January 24, 2012 / 9:01 am

    Michael Jackson was a self-confessed pedophile, yet he is still viewed as a role model by some. Perhaps if Paterno had done the moonwalk for the press outside his house he would be too.

    • Khepera January 26, 2012 / 8:55 am

      Not to put too fine a point on it but:
      Michael Jackson — pedophile:most likely. self-confessed: never.
      Besides, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Paterno wasn’t the pedophile. Sandusky was.

  5. Lyle Smith January 24, 2012 / 9:39 am

    Man is flawed. Misfortune and mistake befall all. Joe Paterno’s biography can be no different.

    I’m sad to see Joe go.

  6. Margaret Blough January 24, 2012 / 6:36 pm

    I agree with John. WGDavis (Is this Jack?)-As for McQueary, he was a TA at the time and Sandusky was a much admired former assistant coach who was seen as a humanitarian. In terms of reporting to the police, PSU has its own police force and Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz was the head of that police force. Whether McQueary, as he claims, also spoke with directly with police without a formal police report being generated, I can’t say, but, while there is dispute about what he told the two officials, there is no dispute he talked to them.

    As for Paterno’s power at PSU, it was huge. Some years back, after the football team had some awful back to back seasons, the PSU administration tried to force Paterno to retire. He flat out defied them. Paterno did the legal minimum and he apparently was truthful about what he heard, said, and did because no charges were filed. Paterno himself said that he regretted not doing more. He had the clout to put pressure on University officials about the McQueary charges. He didn’t.

    However, to get to Brooks questions, I think there are actually some points in common with this and what we regularly discuss on here. When I read Paterno’s final interview when he said that part of his reaction was due to McQueary’s lack of specificity on what he saw (McQueary said he tried to take into account the aging coach’s sensibilities) but that, even if McQueary had been more specific it wouldn’t have made a difference, because he didn’t know that male-male rape existed. At first I was skeptical but then I realized that Paterno lived in a bubble at State College. Also, for the most part, we think we know how we’d react in these situations, and it always seems to involve doing the right thing. However, life tends to be messier. Would Sandusky have been charged. There WAS an earlier police report against Sandusky but the then DA decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. Would that poor boy in the incident when McQueary walked in have supported McQueary’s account or would he have denied it out of fear, embarrassment etc?It would have been a huge scandal, but, would it have been as big a scandal without the alleged coverup? Likely not. The fact is that humans don’t like being confronted with difficult choices and potential scandals. The people in charge, including Paterno, took the course of least resistance, hoping it would all go away, and, instead, it blew up in their faces.

    Personally, I think Paterno committed one of the major mistakes to which sports figures are subject. He stayed way too long. The time to leave is when people are still disappointed that you are going, instead of waiting until they’re hoping for your own sake that you’ll retire and are relieved when you do. Even as a Pitt Law graduate (I’ve always said that hating PSU is an unwritten degree requirement at PItt), I have mixed feelings. I think he was a fundamentally decent man who did a lot of admirable things but whose instincts on how to handle McQueary’s information may have been eroded by age and adulation and desire to protect his beloved university and football program. The end should not dominate or, even worse, wipe out what Paterno accomplished, but it shouldn’t be swept under the table in grief and guilt over his death either. It should serve as a warning to people in high places to take care in how they handle difficult situations;

    • Carl Schenker January 25, 2012 / 7:03 am

      I just want to comment on one narrow point for the future biographers examining this record: Paterno’s interview assertion, noted by Margaret, that he did not know of the existence of male-male rape. I might credit such a statement by Queen Victoria. But, to me, that statement is utterly unbelievable (indeed, laughable) from any 20th/21st century American man, especially one from the he-man world of big time sports. Didn’t he ever watch a prison movie, etc, etc? CRS

    • wgdavis January 26, 2012 / 9:44 pm

      Not Jack.

      JoePa had earned the right to go out on his own terms. No such thing as staying too long here. The Nits lost a tough game to Nebraska after all the crap hit the fan and had they won, they would have played in the Big Ten Championship game.

      Can’t say he stayed to long, that’s just pure hooey. Anyone who watched or was present at today’s memorial service and listened to player after player talk about his legacy not as 409 wins, but in the lives and great works that his players have and are accomplishing.

    • John Foskett January 26, 2012 / 8:57 am

      Labeling Posnanski a “biographer” is actually an insult to Paterno. “Single, hazy event”? You have simply got to be kidding me. Posnanski is a “biographer” in the same sense that fawners like Ivan Maisel and Kirk Herbstreit are “biographers”. I interpret Brooks’s question as directed at the task confronting a legitimate, credentialed biographer – not somebody who may well have been among the criwd of 37,000 venerators yesterday who have willfully blinded themselves to what happened on Penn State’s premises because the one guy who could have ended it with a snap of his fingers did nothing instead..

      • wgdavis January 26, 2012 / 9:47 pm

        The man is writing a biography of Joe Paterno. Does that not entitle him to be called Paterno’s biographer, unless and until he proves incompetent?

        You obviously don’t understand the setup at Penn State. Joe reported the issue to his superiors. They knifed him in the back, along with the kids that Sandusky molested. Joe did not have the power so many think he did. In the end, he got fired. And even that was an injustice.

        • John Foskett January 27, 2012 / 7:19 am

          Trust me. i’d make a healthy wager that i know more about the “setup at Penn State” than you do. I’l,l leave it at that. And a sports columnist’s daily entry is definitely not a “biography”.

          • wgdavis January 27, 2012 / 1:26 pm

            Not good enough!

  7. John Foskett January 25, 2012 / 7:53 am

    Margaret: You make many valid points. To be clear (which I may not have been), I was trying to respond to Brokks’s point by saying that the legacy is deservedly mixed and that Paterno’s passing ought to be dealt with in that framework. The unabashed veneration by the Herbstreits, et al. of the planet is disgusting, to say the least. This morning I heard a Penn State alum on a local talk show. One of the few who haven’t apparently swallowed the Happy Valley Kool-Aid, she said that she and her husband (another alum) find the unvarnished worship embarrassing and wrong. Her husband had a job for the Board of Trustee after graduating. She reecounted a meeting attended by Paterno. He received a standing ovation when he entered and when he left. That was the problem in the shadows of Mount Nit and it played a big role in what did not happen (when it should have).

    • wgdavis January 26, 2012 / 9:49 pm

      A man with the record of Joe Paterno certainly deserved a standing O from the trustees. Joe, through the football program, took that school from the backwaters to one of the leading Universities in the country.

      • John Foskett January 27, 2012 / 7:21 am

        That assessment speaks for itself. The victims of Paterno’s long-time DC and friend who was allowed to continue victimizing them after Joepa “reported to his superiors” probably disagree.

        • wgdavis January 27, 2012 / 10:53 pm

          That statement is moronic.

          • John Foskett January 28, 2012 / 9:14 am

            That;s all you’ve got?

          • wgdavis January 28, 2012 / 2:06 pm

            “That statement is moronic” speaks for itself far more than all your ‘assertions’.

  8. anonymous January 25, 2012 / 2:39 pm

    wgdavis: Well you decry people rushing to judgement, but you participate in a contorted moral equivalence. How many students do you have to positively influence to compensate for molesting a child? 10? 100? 10,000? Where is the cutoff? The absurdity of the question answers itself.

    No, it is certainly not true that the only mistake he made was in trusting Curley and Schultz. If that were true he shouldn’t have felt guilty about not doing more. it would only be a failure of process and that would imply he was powerless to do anything more. He was not. He took the attitude that should have been taken if he’d heard hearsay about a person in the program of a type whose truth or falsity had no moral import on anyone that Paterno knew of for whom he felt responsible. If he’d listened to hearsay about Sandusky’s alleged cruelty to animals or street racing let’s say, or even cheating on his wife. Then he’d be right to say “Look I’m not Sandusky’s prosecutor or judge, and besides people say all sorts of things that aren’t true.”

    You say “No one castigates them (Curley, Schultz, Spanier, and McQueary. Oh yes they do. Yes they do and did especially of McQueary and his father. McQuery has endured biting criticism for his role, and rightly so. So has his father, and so has the board (though not enough of the latter I’d agree). Paterno may well be the least culpable of the bunch, but it doesn’t mean his reputation isn’t tarnished. If he participated in the acceptance by silence of a child-molester’s activity how is that anything but a blight on his character? What does it matter that other’s “have a far greater moral lapse than JoePa’s.” The problem is that Paterno had a moral lapse. And it does tarnish his reputation as a man. Your claim that “JoePa did not tarnish his reputation” isn’t true by your own logic. Unless . . . as I’m sure is the case you want to that since everyone has moral lapses of one type or other then no one can judge Paterno. This is a ridiculous argument.

    Look, I was 17 years old and in high-school working a night job managing a store in the late 70’s. A guy I knew, and former employee, came onto the parking lot drunk and accosted his wife in her car off to the side of the lot out of the view of most. Seeing what happened I walked out and said “Hey man, what are you doing? Cut it out!” He had her pinned in the front seat in a headlock and angrily striking her hard enough in the stomach in the course of this diatribe. He yelled at me “Get out of here!” This isn’t your business!” and continued. Now I was 17 years old, like a lot of young kids was scared of my own shadow, had never been in a fight or even a pushing match in my life (no brothers) and this larger guy could have kicked my ass. And it was his wife. Additionally it was just embarrassing and semi-public, and I was trying to deal with clients and the business. It could have been ignored, but if he didn’t stop I thought she’d be hurt and even if not striking her was wrong in any case.

    So I stepped back into the store and pondered the situation. There was a lot of cognitive dissonance at the whole marital aspect of it in the 70’s, the embarrassment of not feeling physically confident of myself to do more than protest verbally, the fact that calling the police on a person known to me and the owner (not present) was also embarrassing, and the possibility that possible ensuing chaos of police arriving might get me fired. After all, I could have ignored what was going on in the dark at the edge of the lot since others were doing that perfectly well. I just wished the problem would just go away but it wasn’t. So I thought to myself, “Ok she’s his wife; does that entitle him to strike her?” No. Well what can I do? Whether I should or not, I didn’t feel capable of intervening physically with a positive result. In my mind I couldn’t. But I thought to myself “I want to act, I should act, but I can’t.” Conclusion? Dial the police immediately, and I did. They showed up and ended it. After the woman came to me and after using the store restroom to clean up told me how scared she was, and at least I could look her in the eye. How could I have respected myself if I was more worried about my own fears or my job than someone being hurt? I would never have been able to respect myself if I hadn’t done whatever it was I could do. When I informed the owner after closing time by phone what had happened so he’d hear about it from me first he sounded incredulous, but I didn’t go into any detail since it was just informing him for his benefit rather than seeking approval or anything. He never gave me any grief afterwards.

    I was 17 years old, and the first time I’d encountered anything remotely close to this. At no time did I consider calling either of my parents for advice, I never told them or anyone about it. That McQueary called his dad in his mid-30’s after grad-school could not be anything other than deeply humiliating, and I wouldn’t want to be him. I also wouldn’t want to be his father. Whatever Paterno knew, he knew as much as he wanted to know. And he did less than he could have, and should have in obvious ways. Does that make him a bad man? No. It makes him whatever that makes a person. It is logical to think him less of a man than someone who did what he could have and should have. But a biographer needn’t supply such a judgement, and should leave such judgements to readers for the most part. It’s impossible to leave out all judgement though.

    • John Foskett January 26, 2012 / 9:06 am

      Very well said and compelling. I would add that I hope a biographer examines closely the cult-like trance that has enveloped that university and that town. Until I visited State College for a game I thought that the only places where living persons had statues erected in their honor were Stalin’s USSR, Sadaam’s Iraq, and North Korea. Truly a bizarre place in which a football coach had extraordinary power, actually – and shockingly – in excess of anything I’ve ever seen in Tuscaloosa, Norman, Columbus, or the other “usual suspects”.It is impossible to separate how McQueary handled this from the fact that he grew up in that cult-like environment.and played in it. I do not excuse his own response but i sure understand it far more than I do Paterno playing the game of ‘reporting” it to his “superiors”.and then saying :”I did all I could”. The notion that Curley was Joepa’s “superior” is utterly laughable to anyone with even minimal knowledge of how things “worked” there.

      • wgdavis January 26, 2012 / 9:51 pm

        How familiar are you?

        • John Foskett January 27, 2012 / 7:21 am


          • wgdavis January 27, 2012 / 1:26 pm

            Not an answer.

          • John Foskett January 28, 2012 / 9:13 am

            I’ll decide that. But then I’m not wearing those blue and white glasses.

    • wgdavis January 26, 2012 / 9:51 pm

      Sorry, I don’t respond to anonymous.

      • Matt McKeon January 28, 2012 / 5:42 am

        “Sorry, I can’t respond to anonymous.”

        Fixed that for you.

        • wgdavis January 28, 2012 / 2:07 pm

          Nope, didn’t need a fix. I don’t respond to anonymous.

  9. Brooks D. Simpson January 28, 2012 / 12:03 pm

    Okay, folks … enough about Joe Paterno proper. The exchanges illustrate the difficulty in the problem I posed in the post.

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