The End of Paterno
Let me start with this: I am writing a book about Joe Paterno. I am getting paid a sizable amount of money to do so, some of which I plan to donate to the charity of Joe’s choice, some of which I plan to keep. I have been working on this book, on and off, speed bumps and traffic jams, for a couple of years now. I moved away from my family, to State College, for the football season. I had many hard feelings about that. But I believed — as my wife believed — that it was the right thing to do. I came here to write about one of the giants of sports.
And my wife and I both felt that the only way to tell the story, for better and worse, was to be around it every day.
The last week has torn me up emotionally. This doesn’t matter, of course. All
that matters are the victims of the horrible crimes allegedly committed by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. I cannot say that enough times.
Sometimes, I feel like the last week or so there has been a desperate race among commentators and others to prove that they are MORE against child molesting than anyone else. That makes me sick. We’re all sickened. We’re all heartbroken. We’re all beyond angry, in a place of rage where nothing seems real. The other day, I called it “howling.” I meant that in the purest sense of the word — crying in pain.
So, two points to get out of the way:
1. I think Joe Paterno had the responsibility as a leader and a man to stop the horrific rapes allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky, and I believe he will have regrets about this for the rest of his life.
2. Because of this, Joe Paterno could no longer coach at Penn State University.
Beyond these two points, though, I said
I wasn’t going to write about this because I feel like there’s still a lot of darkness around. I don’t know what Joe Paterno knew. I don’t know how he handled it. I don’t know if he followed up. I don’t know anything about Paterno’s role in this except for what little was said about that in the horrifying and stomach-turning grand jury findings
. People have jumped to many conclusions about Paterno’s role and his negligence, and they might be right. I’ll say it again: They might
be right. But they might be wrong, too. And I’m writing a book about the man. I can’t live in that world of maybes.
It hasn’t been easy to stay silent — nor is it my personality. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I will write 5,000 words about an infomercial I don’t like. But I thought it was important that I stay out of the middle of this, observe the scene, and I still think that’s important.
But — well, I’ve already said that my emotions don’t matter here, that they are nothing like what the victims went through, but for the purposes of this essay I’ll tell you them anyway: I’ve been wrecked the last week. Writing a book comes from the soul. It consumes you — mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all of it. I have thought about Joe Paterno, his strengths, his flaws, his triumphs, his failures, his core, pretty much nonstop for months now. I have talked to hundreds of people about him in all walks of life. I have read 25 or 30 books about him, countless articles. I’m not saying I know Joe Paterno. I’m saying I know a whole lot about him.
And what I know is complicated. But, beyond complications — and I really believe this with all my heart — there’s this, and this is exclusively my opinion: Joe Paterno has lived a profoundly decent life.
Nobody has really wanted to say this lately, and I grasp that. The last week has obviously shed a new light on him and his program — a horrible new light — and if you have any questions about how I feel about all that, please scroll back up to my two points at the top.
But I have seen some things in the last few days that have felt rotten, utterly wrong — a piling on that goes even beyond excessive, a dancing on the grave that makes me ill. Joe Paterno has lived a whole life. He has improved the lives of countless people. I know — I’ve talked to hundreds of them. Almost every day I walk by the library that he and his wife, Sue, built. I walk by the religious center that tries to bring people together, and his name is on the list of major donors. I hear the stories, the countless stories, of the kindnesses that came naturally to him, of the way he stuck with people in their worst moments, of the belief he had that everybody could do a little bit better — as a football player, as a student, as a human being. I’m not going to tell you these stories now, because you can’t hear them. Nobody can hear them in the howling.
But I will say that I am sickened, absolutely sickened, that some of those people whose lives were fundamentally inspired and galvanized by Joe Paterno have not stepped forward to stand up for him this week, have stood back and allowed him to be painted as an inhuman monster who was only interested in his legacy, even at the cost of the most heinous crimes against children imaginable.
Shame on them.
And why? I’ll tell you my opinion: Because they were afraid. And I understand that. A kind word for Joe Paterno in this storm is taken by many as a pro vote for a child molester. A quick, “Wait a minute, Joe Paterno is a good man. Let’s see what happened here” is translated as an attempt to minimize the horror of what Jerry Sandusky is charged with doing. It takes courage to stand behind someone you believe in when it’s this bad outside. It takes courage to stand up for a man in peril, even if he stood up for you.
And that’s shameful. I have not wanted to speak because it’s not my place to speak. I’m Joe Paterno’s biographer. I’m here to write about the man. I’m not here to write a fairy tale, and I’m not here to write a hit job, and I hope to be nowhere near either extreme. I’m here to write a whole story. I’ve had people ask me: “Will you include all this in the book?” Well, OF COURSE I will — this is the tragic ending of a legendary career. I’m going to wait for evidence, and if it turns out that Joe Paterno knowingly covered this up, then I will write that with all the power and fury I have in me.
I will wait, though. I will have to wait.
But then, yeah, I opened my big mouth. On Thursday morning, I went to speak at the “Paterno and the Media” class on the Penn State campus — I have spoken at the class the last two or three years. This was obviously one day after Paterno had been fired, and the campus had been turned inside out. I woke up wondering if I really should go. But I decided I had to go.
And when I was asked questions, I had to say how I felt. It spilled out of me. I suppose it caused a bit of a Twitter uproar — I say “I suppose,” because for the first time in memory I am not checking Twitter, and I think I’ll stay away for a while — but what I remember saying is:
1. Joe Paterno is responsible for what happens on his watch. Period.
2. People are making assumptions about what Joe did or didn’t know, what Joe did or didn’t do, and I can’t tell you that those assumptions are wrong. But I can tell you that they are assumptions based on one side of the story.
3. We are in a top-you world where everyone is not only trying to report something faster but is also trying to report something ANGRIER. One guy wants Joe Paterno to resign, the next wants him to be fired, the next wants him to be fired this minute, the next wants him to be fired and arrested, the next wants him to be fired, arrested and jailed, on and on, until we’ve lost sight of who actually committed the crimes here.
4. I think the University could not possibly have handled this worse. It was disgusting and disgraceful, the method in which they fired Joe Paterno after 60 years of service, and yes, I do think Paterno was a scapegoat. Of course he was. I’ve already said that he had to be let go. But to let him dangle out there, take up all the headlines, face the bulk of the media pressure, absolutely, that’s the very definition of scapegoat. Three people were indicted and arrested. A fourth, I hear, will be indicted soon. Joe Paterno is not one of the four.
5. It is still unclear what Paterno did in this case. It will remain unclear for a while. You might be one of the hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve heard from who know EXACTLY what Paterno did. He HAD to know this. He DEFINITELY knew that. He COULD have done something. I respect that. Joe Paterno’s a public figure. You have every right to believe what you want to believe and be absolutely certain about it. But since we have not heard from Joe, not heard from former athletic director Tim Curley, not heard from GA/assistant coach Mike McQueary, not heard from anyone who was in the room, I’ll repeat: It’s unclear. A determined grand jury did not charge Joe Paterno with any crime. A motivated reporting barrage, so far, anyway, has not uncovered a single thing that can tell us definitively what Joe Paterno knew.
You can say that he knew enough to stop this, and I’d say you were right. I have tried so hard to make it clear that I am not defending Joe Paterno’s actions or inactions, but I know that won’t be enough. You may be writing an email right now telling me how terrible child molestation is, how awful a person Joe Paterno is, how awful a person I am for wanting to wait and see. I understand. This case hits emotions that are unstoppable.
But I will say this: Paterno has paid a price here. His job is gone. His life’s work has been soiled. His reputation is in tatters. Maybe that should be the price. Maybe there should be more of a price. You don’t have to type: “Well, his price is nothing like the price of those victims…” I already know that.
But I think the way Joe Paterno has lived his life has earned him something more than instant fury, more than immediate assumptions of the worst, more than the happy cheers of critics who have always believed that there was something phony about the man and his ideals. He deserves what I would hope we all deserve — for the truth to come out, or, anyway, the closest thing to truth we can find.
I don’t think Joe Paterno has gotten that. And I think that’s sad.
And with that, I’m going back underground to wrestle with my book and doubts and emotions and everything that goes with that.