I have roundly criticized and condemned the Catholic Church for their failure to diligently investigate and prosecute the pedophiles in their ranks. I get angry when I think of the complicit environment the Church created that allowed the pedophiles to carry out their predatory behavior for not just decades, but for centuries. In my view, the Church tacitly supported pedophilic behavior, and it is inexcusable.
So why then do I not feel the same way about the iconic, now former, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno? He did not do enough, and his inaction quite possibly allowed the grotesque sexual abuse to continue under his watch. In fact, it’s fairly apparent that Joe Pa’s failure to act mirrored a moral collapse within the entire Penn State athletic department and school administration. Everyone turned their backs on those young boys and showed a horrific lack of decency in the process.
Last week, I was an enthusiastic admirer of Joe Paterno. He did everything right in college football. He ran a clean program that every other college and university in the NCAA should have modeled themselves after. He loves his players – from all 46 seasons, and they love him. For most of them, he probably is one of the most influential men in their lives. He guided them, shaped them, took them from young men with athletic talent to productive members of society. I am a Tennessee fan, and I had minimal athletic talent that saw me through a few years of high school football. If you were to ask me where I would want to play college football as a young man, I would have said Penn State because that’s where Joe Pa coached.
This week, I am heartbroken, and I feel wrong for it because my heart breaks for Joe Pa. Somehow the tragedy that happened to young boys has turned into a story of a legend falling from grace. This shouldn’t be about Joe Pa, but that’s what it’s become. True, he did not do enough, but sadly, he did more than most. He turned a man he considered a close friend into his superiors for shattering the lives of young boys in the most insidious ways. But we expect our legends to not just do more than most. We expect them to do everything right and perfect. We expect them to live up to an unimpeachable moral standard. Joe Pa fell short of that standard. We discovered this week that the legend is human.
So, I sit here with my hypocrisy feeling conflicted about my own reaction to the Penn State story. Try as I might, I can’t stop feeling bad for Joe Pa, and I will not allow myself to believe that his failure in these events defines his life and career. He is a great man who made a bad choice. He is human.