If I was asked to describe this entire messy situation at Penn State in one word, it’d be “gray.” The cover-up was gray, the after-effects are gray, and just about everything we thought we knew about Joe Paterno is too.
All I see is gray. But unfortunately, for many of you, that word might not be good enough.
That’s because in the society we live in today, there is no such thing is gray. Everything is black or white, right or wrong. You need an opinion, you need a strong opinion, and you need it now. There is no time to collect facts, no time to gain perspective. There is no middle ground. There is no moral gray area.
Never has that been more apparent to me than the coverage this past week at Penn State. Hang out on Twitter, watch the television coverage of the event or read columns about the topic anywhere and it seems to me like everyone is one of two very distinct sides of the fence. You either:
1. Want to see everyone fired, want to see Joe Paterno run out of town, and want Penn State burned to the ground…
2. You’re a Penn State homer, a Joe Paterno apologist and (please excuse me for being so blunt) an advocate for the sexual abuse of children.
Believe me, I hate typing that last sentence as much you hated reading it. But that is how I feel the reaction to this whole uncomfortable situation at Penn State has been. And I also can’t help but feel like I’m caught somewhere in the middle. I can’t help but see gray when looking at this situation, and see even more of it when trying to find answers.
I see gray when I look at Joe Paterno. Not so much in the hair on his head or the clouds in his brain. But more in the mystique surrounding his role in this whole mess; in the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse by his former colleague and friend Jerry Sandusky.
The list of questions is long, and delves into plenty of gray area. What did he know? Why didn’t he do more? And maybe more importantly in my eyes, did he comprehend the severity of what was going around on him? Call me crazy, but I’m not so sure about the last one.
Now before we go any further, let me get one thing out of the way right now: I’m not making excuses for Joe Paterno. Whatever he knew, whatever he was told, he had to go to his authorities with it. And when his superiors didn’t act, he needed to take it above them. Paterno was- and probably still is- the most powerful man in town, and had the opportunity to act quickly, decisively and definitely. He had the opportunity to not only stop the sexual assault that graduate assistant Mike McQueary reported to him in 2002, but likely many more that followed as well. He didn’t, and he should be out of a job because of it. (Whether he should be behind bars, I’ll leave to a court of law.)
I would also like to add that Paterno absolutely, positively needed to be fired Wednesday night. Penn State couldn’t wait until the end of the year, and couldn’t wait until the end of the weekend. Had Paterno been allowed to coach Saturday, it would’ve been an embarrassment to the university, and more importantly a punch to the gut of every alleged victim. It also would’ve been an unfair distraction to any Penn State assistant coach who had nothing to do with this (excluding McQueary obviously) and to any seniors who should be celebrating their final game in Happy Valley Saturday.
Again, Joe Paterno had to go. (As for Jerry Sandusky, it obviously goes without saying that if he’s found guilty of these unspeakable crimes, he should spend every last waking hour of his life behind bars.)
Still firing Joe Pa doesn’t answer my fundamental question of this: Did he fully understand what was happening around him? Did he really understand the severity of the allegations placed on his desk? I’m not so sure.
Want to know why I think that? Well, let me starting by asking if you saw that weird vigil/pep rally thing that occurred on his front law Tuesday evening? The one that happened just hours before he announced his retirement, and 24 hours before he was officially fired.
Watching that video again, it’s clear to me that Paterno is a man with a warped sense of reality, if he’s got any sense of it at all. Remember, the reason those students showed up on his lawn in the first place, was to support him against allegations that he covered up the sexual assault of small children. Please, read that again. The students were on his front lawn…to support him…against allegations…that he covered up…the sexual assault…of small children.
So how did Joe Pa respond to the vigil? Well, in his defense, he did make a mention of the “victims” but then for some strange reason turned the whole spectacle into a weird, de-facto pep rally. The lives of countless young men may have been tarnished forever, and the best that this man- this person who has been sold to us as a bastion of morality- had to say was… “We are…Penn State!!” I know the students were egging him on to a degree, but come on! Would any other coach in college football find it appropriate to do the same there? Of course not.
But that’s when it hit me. All the jokes that we’ve made over the years about Paterno; about his senility, and lost perspective, and lack of understanding about the world around him, well, all those jokes are more fact than fiction. How else can you explain Paterno treating a vigil in the line of fire, like the auditorium at the Rec Center before a big Ohio State game? You can’t. Again, unless Paterno had no real concept of the world outside the four corners of his brain.
All that brings me back to 2002, and makes me wonder if even back then Paterno should’ve held the position of power he did. When Mike McQueary came to Paterno and told him what he saw, was the moment just “too big” for a 75-year-old to handle?
A couple of things here. First I want to add again that I’m not making excuses. I’m not a Penn State fan, and not a Paterno apologist. It gives me no great pleasure to see Penn State win or lose on Saturday. Please understand that it.
But what I will do is try to give this all some type of context.
So here goes- and this is totally random- but bear with me: I’ve got a grandma who is quite old. She’s older than Joe Paterno is now, which means that she is obviously older than he was in 2002. She saw her 75th birthday sometime in the early 1990’s.
Still, I know how my grandma- and in turn, people her age- think. And it isn’t exactly “progressive,” if you know what I mean. Simply put, she doesn’t understand the outside world around her, nor does she care to know. Try to explain to her something new, something modern, and she sinks into her seat, retreats into a mentally protective cocoon, and moves onto the next thing. She sees no reason to change now what she’s been doing for her entire life. In a word, she’s stubborn. Like most people her age.
And I couldn’t help but think of her last weekend, when Paterno made his first public comments. He seemed just so… out of touch. At one point, he even referenced the 2002 incident by saying that all he had been told (and I’m paraphrasing) is that “there was some horsing around in the shower.” Again…. Huh??? To you and I and any sane, rational person, we all know that there’s no reason for a grown man to be in a shower with a child. No type of horsing around is ever, under any circumstances acceptable. Never. Never. Never.
(**Note: After re-reading some documents, it wasn’t Paterno would said “horsing around,” but former school President Graham Spanier. Paterno said that he heard “it was something of a sexual nature.”)
The problem is, I’m thinking about this situation as a guy with a relatively clear head in his 20’s. I’m not 75. I suspect you probably aren’t either. And I can’t help but wonder how much of a role Paterno’s advanced age played in his thought process throughout this whole situation. Did he not understand how serious McQueary’s allegation was? Did he not want to understand? Was he scared and hoping that the whole situation would just go away? Only he knows the truth. But if any of those thoughts went through his head then yes, the situation was too big for him. And you’ve got to question why his superiors chose to keep him in such a high position, with so much power in the first place.
Speaking of those superiors, let’s not forget them too. Because for all Paterno’s shortcomings, he did in fact report McQueary’s allegations to them, and they did in turn do absolutely nothing. Which again, makes me ask: If you were Joe Paterno, if you were 75 with no real concept of the outside world (as evidenced this week), and if you reported what you knew was wrong to your superiors and they did nothing, isn’t it at least possible that you’d be a little confused? Isn’t it possible that at 75 you’d doubt yourself, and wonder why they weren’t making a bigger deal out of it? Wonder if maybe, you didn’t really understand what was going on?
Again, I’m not making excuses for Joe Paterno. Just trying to wade through this gray area.
And speaking of gray area, I also can’t help but think about Mike McQueary right now.
I can’t help but think about him, think about what he saw, and think about how he reacted.
I also can’t help but wonder if I would’ve acted differently than he did. I’d like to think that if I saw what he claims to have seen, that rather than calling my father and then calling Joe Paterno, I would’ve immediately called the cops (if I didn’t jump in and beat the broad daylights out of Jerry Sandusky on the spot). That’s what I’d like to think I’d have done anyway. It’s easy to say that with hindsight.
However, what I cannot understand for the life of me is this: Say now you’re Mike McQueary. Say you saw this heinous, unspeakable act. Say you went to your superiors and they did nothing. And let’s even give you a major benefit of the doubt, and say that you didn’t call the police because you thought that they’d never believe your testimony over Paterno’s. Say all that happened. I’ve still got to ask, what the hell is your justification for staying at Penn State for the last 10 years, and working at a place that you knew allowed this behavior to happen?
Honestly, I’m really not trying to throw stones here. But I just don’t understand how if a person saw that act, how he could continue to show up and work at a place where he knew that kind of behavior was being allowed to happen. I don’t understand how he could work for the type of people (a head coach, an Athletic Director) that knew these actions were happening and did nothing. And I really don’t understand how he could continue to show up to a building where (as it’s been reported) Sandusky continued to hang out, and continued to give tours to children up until last week. How has he shown up to work every day for each of the last 10 years? Also, how can he go into the homes of 17 and 18-year-old kids and honestly tell them about the virtues of Penn State and the football program? How!?!?!
That’s the question I want an answer to.
Unfortunately, if we’ve learned one thing throughout this process, it’s that there aren’t many answers, only questions. And as this thing plays out, outside of the hands of the university and in the court of law, I suspect we’ll get those answers. And we’ll get them in ugly and grotesque ways we’re probably not entirely ready for.
But for right now, I can’t help but feel stick to my stomach. Sick for the 100 guys on the football team who had nothing to do with this mess, but have to answer questions about it anyway. Sick for the assistant coaches who weren’t involved, but will almost all assuredly be looking for jobs in two months. I even feel sick for Joe Paterno who gave his life to a university and had to go out this way, and sick for McQueary, who will live with what he saw for the rest of his life. Again, it’s all gray. And if you want to curse me out for not picking a side of the fence to stand on, so be it.
Above all though, I feel sick for the one group of people that we haven’t talked about at all. I feel sick for the victims.
I feel sick that all this week we’ve talked about everything but them. We’ve talked about Sandusky and Paterno, and what the old man may or may not have known. We’ve talked about coaching legacies, and whether we’ll remember Paterno for his 409 wins, or his one unconscionable gaffe. We’ve talked about Mike McQueary, and Tom Bradley, and on Saturday we’ll be talking about Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden too.
The only ones we aren’t talking about are the ones who we need to be discussed the most. This isn’t about football, and wins and losses and legacies. This is about the shattered dreams, ruined lives and the pain that has been allegedly inflicted on any number on young men in central Pennsylvania. Those are the people we need to be talking about. We need to be talking about getting them help, getting them answers, and trying to help them move on.
This isn’t about football. This isn’t about Joe Paterno or Mike McQueary.
This is about the victims.
And honestly, I wonder if we’re all forgetting that.
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