I have been struggling mightily as to what I want to say about Joe Paterno. He passed away due to complications from lung cancer one week ago (January 22, 2012).
Most people, I feel, are still chewing on the former coach’s role in the Jerry Sandusky horror story, the fact that Paterno didn’t go to the police when a confession of witnessing an act of child abuse was brought to his attention. I am still chewing on it myself. I am chewing on the fact that Mike McQueary, the aforementioned direct witness, did not call the police himself, passing the information to Paterno instead. I am chewing on the fact that had Paterno reported what McQueary told him to the (State College) police, Paterno would have been giving the police hearsay information. I am chewing on the fact that Paterno did report McQueary’s confession to Gary Schultz, the head of University Police, which has jurisdiction over all crimes committed on campus. I am chewing on the fact that when Schultz failed in his duty to investigate, Joe never followed up.
There are so many foggy, intertwined emotions swirling in my gut regarding Joe Paterno’s connection to his undoing as a coach. I’m not sure how long it will take for me to find a place to land, or if I ever will. But apart from these unresolved feelings, I do know that Paterno was a man who so deeply loved Penn State, and more importantly, the people who passed through it. He cared about people. He valued academics in a culture that quite often puts athletics first, and on a pedestal. He and Sue, his wife, donated over $4 million to the university, which included funding for the library on campus as well as for the erection of a non-denominational spiritual center. He was part of one of the first major college programs in the US to embrace black players, a program that fought for all of its players to be on the field in segregation-era games. He left this program with the number one academic ranking among the top 25 teams in the country in 2011, as graded by the New America Foundation (which also showed no achievement gap between black and white Penn State players – a rare feat in Division I-A football).
And he wanted all of that to be his legacy. Joe was not a hero, but Joe wasn’t a villain either. He was a human.