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Katherine Redmond

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Putting Paterno's Death in Perspective

Posted: 01/23/2012 4:01 pm

If you are expecting this article to kick dirt in the face of Penn State coach, Joe Paterno, you may want to read something else. For the sake of the victims, this is about them.

The man affectionately known as "Joe Pa" died Sunday. While it will now conjure up questions of his legacy, how to remember him and what to say about him, I don't think that conversation is helpful. The conversation that serves to best commemorate the horrible turn of events at Penn State should be, "How are the alleged victims of Sandusky and the Penn State football culture handling this?"

You may be surprised to know that many will struggle with his passing. It has robbed them of an element of closure that they need to heal and move forward. It is plausible to assume many of the young victims of Sandusky were fans of Penn State. That means they looked up to Joe, admired him and some probably did what most Penn State fans had done and elevated him to almost god status. So, take that mindset and fast-forward to November's incomprehensible scandal. While hearing the gory details, then excuses, then cover-ups, remember that the victims who came forward most likely wanted one thing -- an apology. "I'm sorry" are two small yet powerful words that they won't hear.

I seriously doubt any of them wished this upon Paterno. But it happened. And when he was fired, many predicted that football is what kept him going and the firing would lead to his demise. For the victims, it may have served them best if he would have kept going after that. Now, it is the end of an era that, respectively, they once enjoyed being a part of, before they met Jerry Sandusky. I'm sure at one point they wore Penn State hats and jerseys with pride. But that legacy they once enjoyed is now gone -- and they may erroneously blame themselves as having helped bring it down. That's a huge burden to carry.

With Paterno's passing, there is no closure for them. No happy ending. No fast healing or cathartic event from the man that many of them, at one time, held in high esteem -- and let them down. I am sure they are hearing the news and are confused and conflicted about their feelings. I am sure for many of them, the self-blame which is all too common in the minds of victims, has reasserted itself. The guilt of an event like this can take a huge toll, especially when there are those out there who will gladly assist in the victim blame: "If all those boys would have kept their mouth shut... " "Joe did the right thing, he shouldn't have been fired. It killed him... " There is no question this adds an additional trauma to the Sandusky victims we have already heard from -- and many other male and female victims of the culture Paterno created who have yet to come forward.

From personal experience, I know that when those who have harmed you are forced to face you; when they have to give an account; when they are forced to look at you and acknowledge your existence as a human being, a powerfully healing event takes place. Sandusky's victims won't be afforded that with Joe. And they'll have to continue enduring the comments of those sensitive to his death, who, though well-intentioned and also conflicted, serve to inflict further pain.

Misha Ben David, an Austin area counselor who specializes in trauma and addiction, spoke at length with me about Paterno's passing. "In the end, JoePa's death will just be another obstacle to overcome for most, not all, of the victims. But while some survivors will hold Paterno ultimately responsible for the continued abuse that Sandusky inflicted, other survivors won't be so concerned with Paterno, and will be more focused on Sandusky. The ones that deserve much of the concern are the ones who are still silent. They risk suicide."

There will be people in extreme camps on both sides. There will be others somewhere in the middle saying he was a great coach and did great things, but this one incident marred his legacy. I am asking you to not even engage in that debate and use your energy in a more constructive way. Joe Paterno was a man who was given a lot of power and in turn, used it for good and bad purposes. But the era of Joe Pa will not die with him. It is ingrained in the big time college sports culture. Plenty of current college coaches turn a blind eye to issues of abuse, putting the team, the family, first. A coach of a big time program has influence over the college president, the police department, the District Attorney's office and yes, even the media. And they wield it willingly -- for the good of the team and for the many fans who buy tickets to see them win.

So, instead of condemning or praising Joe Pa, shift your focus, your words and your actions to something more meaningful. Grieve for the victims and yes, grieve for the Paterno family. Understand that you know nothing about the last moments of Paterno's life, or moments between Paterno and his Creator. But, if you want the negative side of the era of Joe Pa to end, fight against it on your own beloved team. Don't claim that what Joe Pa did was inexcusable while claiming your team's innocence if and when the same story comes out. Let the Paterno legacy be that this scandal was so outrageous and disturbing that it will never happen again, not even to one person. Help make that the new source of the victims' healing.


Katherine Redmond is the Founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

 

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