Thursday, November 10, 2011

On Joe Paterno

I am not going to write the post you want me to write. I am going to try to explain something about a man that few people really seemed to care to hear today.

What Joe Paterno did was wrong. He should have talked and talked and talked until he found someone who listened. And his silence put other kids at risk. End of story.

But I'm not buying the narrative that Joe Paterno is a Bond villain. He's not. It's easy to run with that narrative and tear down his legacy at Penn State with a few cheap jabs while we ignore what terrible people we all are. People have been doing it on twitter and the blogosphere for the past 24 hours. And I'm sure they've been doing it on the TV too, but I got rid of that damn box and am never going back there for my source of news.

But on the web there were a million articles like this today. And I don't mean to pick on Jill for any particular reason. What she said here just sums up what's being said all across the internet:

I know you all like football. I know a lot of people like football. I know it’s fun and culturally important and for some reason people identify incredibly strongly with Their Team, many to unhealthy levels. But it’s football. It is just football. Feeling personally devastated because someone you trusted made a really terrible decision is one thing; being personally devastated because your identity is so wrapped up in your team that the idea of any member of that team being punished for covering up child rape strikes you as fundamentally unfair is another thing. It is something that should make you seriously reconsider your identity and your values. Being really good at coaching football doesn’t absolve you from looking the other way when you hear about child rape; it doesn’t absolve you from encouraging others not to report child rape to the police.

There's truth here, but there's also so much misunderstanding. Misunderstanding about why some people might stick up for Joe Paterno. The man helped MAKE Penn State University with his football program. It's why he is (or was) the only 80-something NCAA Div I football coach. In an exchange between Steve Inskeep and Tom Goldman this morning on NPR, you get a sense of what Paterno's legacy could have been were it not for this scandal, and why students who had never met this man took the streets last night in protest:

INSKEEP: It sounds like even these students who, as you said, were far too young to remember some of his best seasons really identified with this guy.

GOLDMAN: Well, they did. And you know, whether it was, you know, this goal of his to make the university better or whether it was just this great allegiance to a storied football program, it's a combination of things. The football program over the years became the embodiment of the school slogan: success with honor. Penn State won and the players graduated. A former academic liaison to the football team remembers being constantly hounded by Paterno. How is this player do in English class? Did that player pass the science test? And Paterno and Penn State were able to avoid major academic or recruiting scandals. They really became the envy of Division I programs as far as doing things right.

It's impossible to imagine where Penn State would be today without Joe Paterno. Not the football program, the entire university. So many people were upset today because of the student protests, and assumed it was a protest about the firing of a football coach. They couldn't have been more wrong. People were upset because of the firing of an institutional father figure, which is exactly what JoePa is/was to this community. You don't understand it? Fine. That's okay. But don't pretend you have a better grip on the situation and tell these people that their feelings are invalid, or worse, inhuman, and that they ought to be ashamed of their identity and their values.

Because they were reacting the only way they knew how -- with confusion, with sadness, with anger. Some probably misdirected from JoePa himself to the university who fired him.

I'm going to stop now, because I hope I've made a small point here. I've had this post in my head all day, but I didn't put it down until I read Joe Posnanski's essay on Joe Paterno earlier tonight. For those of you who don't know, Posnanski writes for Sports Illustrated, has a brilliant mind, could have been a journo for just about anyone/anything, but decided to go into sports journalism. And he's also been working on a biography about Joe Paterno. If you need to read one more article on the scandal before you begin your three-day weekend and try to forget this whole mess, let it be this article. You can actually hear Posnanski's heart breaking mid-way through. Unlike the write-by-numbers reactionary pieces you've been reading all day, this had to have been an incredibly difficult piece to write. And the web is better for it.

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