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Steve Malkenson

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The Last Word On Joe Paterno (And What He Tells Us About Ourselves)

Posted: 02/13/2012 11:14 am

Three weeks ago Joe Paterno passed away, his will to live doubtless sapped by the tumultuous events of the last three months of his life.

We all share in the outrage over the alleged actions of Mr. Sandusky and the university's apparent preference to protect its reputation at the expense of the victims. But what has been striking is our individual and collective need to stand in immediate judgment of Mr. Paterno and his role in the affair.

Sportscasters, athletes, journalists, bloggers, and parents -- it seems everyone has an opinion. Not just an opinion, but a definitive judgment on Mr. Paterno's actions and character expressed in some of the strongest language I've ever heard or read.

There are two points of view. One sees Paterno as an innocent victim of the affair. Its adherents point out that the witness, Mike McQueary, has testified that out of respect for Paterno's age and status, he used mild, perhaps ambiguous language when describing what he saw to the coach. "Horsing around" has been the term cited. Further, they point to Paterno's statement in his interview with Sally Jenkins that he had "never heard of rape of a man". They see Paterno as a man from a different era, naïve if not oblivious to the potential gravity of Sandusky's alleged actions. Given that scenario, supporters defend Paterno's choice to report what he was told up the hierarchy and leave it to others to conduct an investigation.

The other, perhaps dominant point of view is that Paterno was the most powerful man on campus. He was a control freak, insisting on total control over every aspect of his program. He protected his own. Nothing escaped his grasp. To those who adopt this view of the world, Paterno's self professed ignorance and naïveté is implausible. He did the legal minimum and bears moral responsibility for subsequent victims by placing the reputation of his program over the safety of children.

I certainly don't propose to know Joe Paterno's state of mind, or what he knew and when he knew it. There are a small handful of people who have true knowledge or insight on either of those factors, and one of them is dead. It seems to me, however, that is precisely what one needs to know in order to evaluate the appropriateness of his actions.

Forgetting about Joe Paterno, the real lesson in our need to judge the man's actions in this tragedy concerns ourselves. What does it tell us that we feel compelled to rush to the judgment of a man even when we lack the knowledge required to evaluate his actions? Why do we need to glorify or vilify others (and in the most passionate terms) when we don't have a basis to do so other than our own prejudicial assumptions? Are we that insecure about our own morality?

The Sandusky affair is a tragedy. Joe Paterno was not a perfect man. He did much good in his life, and no doubt made mistakes, perhaps even serious ones. But we would all do well to look to ourselves rather than being in such haste to judge another.