Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State football coach, has died.
I can’t help but wonder if the travesty of the last few months, with his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, being charged with sexually molesting 10 young boys over 15 years, killed him.
I’m not an alumna of Penn State. (I am, however, an alumna of Syracuse University, with its own scandal of an assistant basketball coach allegedly molesting boys.) Still, I hate to see the storied career of Joe Paterno forever blackened by the malevolent behavior of one man, if that proves to be the case.
Some people argue that Paterno had to know what was going on. They argue that Paterno was so concerned about his legacy, the reputation of his football program and Penn State University, that he was willing to turn a blind eye to the behavior of Jerry Sandusky.
I’m not so sure.
Since the scandal broke in November, Joe Paterno has given only one interview, to Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. The story was published on January 14, 2012. It characterizes Joe Paterno as unable to comprehend what Sandusky may have done, because it was simply too foreign to the way Paterno himself lived his life. Jenkins writes:
He reiterated that McQueary was unclear with him about the nature of what he saw — and added that even if McQueary had been more graphic, he’s not sure he would have comprehended it.
“You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”
Is it possible to be that unaware of the existence of evil? Yes, it is, and we all know it.
While I was uninitiated, meaning, before my direct, personal encounter with a social predator, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would cross paths with evil. I didn’t know that someone who appeared to be so loving and caring could have a hidden agenda. I lived a life of integrity, and I believed that the people who were part of my life were like me.
But, some may argue, sex abuse of children has been in the news for years—look at the stories about the Catholic Church. Well, my cousin was abused by priests. He received financial compensation many years ago—it was probably one of the first cases to be settled. I heard people in my family talking about it. Still, I did not comprehend what he must have experienced.
I didn’t understand the human capacity for manipulation and evil until it happened to me.
So, yes, I can believe that Joe Paterno was clueless. He grew up in a different era, when although the sexual abuse of children probably occurred, it certainly wasn’t talked about. He was inspired by his father. He believed in education. He believed in turning troubled athletes around. His whole life was about winning with integrity.
So for Paterno to realize, at this late stage of his life, that he may have been hoodwinked by someone so close to him must have been a terrible shock. It probably didn’t cause his lung cancer. But it may have sapped Paterno’s strength to fight it.
Read Joe Paterno’s last interview, on WashingtonPost.com.