I graduated from Penn State University in 2008 with a degree in broadcast journalism. As a senior in 2007, I had the opportunity to be on the field of Beaver Stadium for a couple of home games as a videographer for a broadcast news class. Prior to a game against Notre Dame, I was shooting video of Penn State’s warm-ups and perhaps got closer to the hitting drills than I should have. I felt a tap on my shoulder, took off my headphones, turned around, and there he was. Joe Paterno. He yelled at me, “Get out of here. C’mon. Get out of here! Get out of here!” It was easily the proudest moment in my four years of college. Even being yelled at by JoePa was worth bragging about.
On Saturdays, Beaver Stadium doesn’t merely host a football game. It’s church. Penn State football is religion and everybody knows the hymns. Paterno isn’t the priest, bishop or pope. He’s God.
Perhaps that’s the problem. Whether it’s athletes, coaches, celebrities or otherwise, we tend to deify our role models. We build bronze statues, chant slogans, and create legends of infallibility.
But Paterno is not a god. He’s a human being, and a flawed one. What Paterno did for Penn State cannot be understated. I didn’t go to Penn State because of the professors, the campus, or the meal plan. I went for two reasons: football and brand recognition. JoePa can fairly claim about 95% credit for those things. He gave the University an identity, and decades of his life. In return, Penn State gave Paterno immense power, legendary status, and worship (not to mention a fairly substantial salary).
The extent of Paterno’s share of culpability in these horrifying events is still unclear. However, it’s impossible to say he owns no blame. At a minimum, he knew Jerry Sandusky (a name that will rival Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and Lord Voldemort in State College) was accused of inappropriate conduct with a young boy in the football team’s shower. When faced with a situation of obvious seriousness, with a child as the victim, the most powerful man on campus did not live up to the moral code we ascribed to him. He passed the buck to the administration, and washed his hands. Certainly he could have done less, but with the power he wielded, he should have done more.
Paterno exercised poor judgment, and failed in his moral obligations. In Happy Valley, this wasn’t about a football coach’s failure or hypocrisy. This scandal transformed a legend, treated as a god, and turned him into an old man without a job.
Rationally, we shouldn’t feel sorry for JoePa. He’s a man who has experienced unbelievable success, fame, fortune, and happiness. Compared to Sandusky’s victims, it’s hard to feel sympathy for a man that could have put a stop to all of it.
But I do feel sorry for Joe. I bought into his divineness and for four years I visited the Church of Joe on Saturdays and sung his praises. At graduation, I took pictures at his bronze statue and properly worshipped it as an idol should be.
I should have known better. Paterno is human. He is capable of mistakes, poor judgment, and being fired. I think the board was justified, and correct in their decision on Wednesday. It still hurts though.