In 2008, when putting together my book, Action Speak Loudest: Keeping Our Promise for a Better World, I was looking for someone to contribute a chapter on the importance of building character in our youth.
As a Penn State alumnus, there was no better person I thought suited to fill that role than Joseph Vincent Paterno. In the aftermath of the events of the last several months, many may find that choice inappropriate or even offensive. But if I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I would unequivocally make the same choice.
As a student at Penn State over twenty years ago, Paterno filled a very important role for me. He was larger than life, yet his ideals set the tone for the entire university and were well within our grasp. For boys trying to become men like myself, the way he conducted himself, what he said, how he acted set the standard for what we should strive for -- "success with honor". The same admonition that his father gave him when Joe told him he was going to be a football coach instead of a lawyer, "Make an impact." was the same one implicitly passed on to each of the over 500,000 living alumni who identify with Paterno so strongly and who now join in mourning his passing.
Since my days in Happy Valley, I have been among the fortunate to get an up close and personal look into the life of Joe Paterno. Through his contribution to my book and subsequent work I have done with his wife Sue and the Special Olympics, I can tell you that I have never met a more down-to-earth, decent and considerate family as the Paternos. In our many conversations, not one passed when Sue did not ask me how my now two-year old daughter was doing -- knowing that she had serious medical issues at birth -- or to tell me that she was in her prayers.
In the wake of the allegations and now again with his death, I am given pause to think about how I and we have considered this man, his actions and his life. And what we have done as a result.
Like many in the days after, I read the Grand Jury report and was disgusted by it. Embarrassed and ashamed by what transpired. Specifically, regarding Joe, I like everyone else held him up to a higher standard, believing that this great man, had to have done more. But knowing him, I vowed to reserve judgment -- to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all he's done he deserved at least that.
Privately in conversation, I defended him. Asked people to wait. Pointed out distortions in what others were saying (i.e. "He DID go to the police -- the head of the university police." "McQueary DID NOT give him all of the sordid details." "He DID follow up multiple times with McQueary.")
I also reached out to the family to offer support and help in getting their side of the story out.
But publicly, I stayed on the sidelines. I didn't use this outlet or others at my disposal to come to his defense. In a specific work situation, I opted not to fight harder over what I thought to be an unfair treatment of him and his family's good works.
And now, my own moral failing embarrasses me. In his essay, he quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." Some would say by this measure, Paterno himself came up short, and I would argue that in regard to his treatment we all did.
He began his essay in my book by writing of the growing complexities of the digital age. In reference to media proliferation he cites that while he doesn't even know how they all work, "I do know that they make the process of maturing into a responsible and contributing adult much more difficult by their presence."
This remark is prescient as it relates to the media's handling of this situation and our response to it. The imperatives of the media - speed, ratings, and money - betrayed the veracity of the story and led a rush to judgment. And as a result, few were responsible and mature in their coverage.
The lemmings of the keyboard and teleprompter prematurely buried Joe Paterno not once but twice. The first was when they channeled their justified moral outrage over heinous acts and unjustifiably laid it at the doorstep of the most moral man involved. And the second was of course, when major news outlets clamored to be the first to report his death, without respect for the basics of journalism (fact checking) or the basics of being humane (letting the family enjoy their final hours with their beloved patriarch in peace).
And now that he has passed, many will say the healing process will begin. We will begin to reconsider his legacy. The facts will come out. We will stop and realize all the good he has done. Nice things will be said by almost everyone, even those who rushed to judge him in the first place.
But if we do so, without first taking responsibility for our own action in his treatment, this will be inadequate.
The bottom line is that we rushed to judge the life of a great man based on incomplete information. The reasons are many, and perhaps to a degree understandable, but that does not make them right.
Some individuals were overwhelmed by the severity of the charges; others couldn't comprehend the incongruous details of the story. Some needed to place blame in the name of justice while others had to just feel righteous in the face of wrong. Some feared the mob while others feared the truth.
The media storm took on a life of its own and a reputation they help build and varnish for over sixty years, they burnt to the ground in six days with the Penn State Board of Trustees and the general public as willing accomplices.
The result is that the coverage attracted ratings and outrage but not truth and understanding. We took our eyes off of the real story and focused on "the big story".
The cumulative effect to be blunt about it was that we made the last months of a great life unimaginably difficult for both Joe Paterno, his wife, their children and their grandchildren.
Some who are ignorant to all the facts of this case and who cannot get past their moral outrage will suggest that he is not a victim, the kids were. And to this I would say, let's not fool ourselves. These are not mutually exclusive choices.
Of course, the children are victims. If only a fraction of the charges are true, it is no less tragic than if they all are. If so, then Mr. Sandusky should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and so should any Penn State authorities, including the Board of Trustees, who failed in their responsibilities.
But that doesn't make Paterno being prosecuted by the full extent of the media or the masses any less wrong.
What does it say about us as individuals or as a society, when we fail to give pause and consider the facts? When we allow partial truths to render complete judgments?
When Joe Paterno was told via phone that he was being removed from his duties as football coach, he simply hung up in shock. His wife, Sue called back and said, "After 61 years, he deserved better. He deserved better."
She's right. He did. And for my part, I'm sorry I didn't do more.
I hope that over the days, months and years to come, the character of Joseph Vincent Paterno is redeemed. That he is honored for his lifetime of contributions and that his family can once again take public pride in what they know so well privately -- he was a great man who did great things.
He deserves to take his rightful place in the history of Penn State, not as the wrongful focal point of a tragic scandal, but as the man who more than any other represented this great University. His wish was to be remembered more than a football coach, but as someone who made Penn State a better place. There is no doubt that he did this more so than any other person in the history of the University.
Joe Paterno is Penn State and Penn State is Joe Paterno.
We are... Joe Paterno. Rest in Peace.
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