On reading, writing and reacting

Posted by Jeff Rice on November 16, 2011 

I was walking through a local mall today and passed one of those places that sells artwork. My eyes fell upon a portrait of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. The original price, with a line drawn through it, was close to $600. The current price? $275.

Not a bad bargain. But then I wondered if anyone would buy it.

Have things changed that rapidly and that completely here? Just typing the word "former" in front of Paterno's name a few seconds ago seemed strange. But Joe Paterno is not the head football coach at Penn State anymore. He is not the most powerful man in Pennsylvania anymore (you could argue that he never was but I'm not sure you'd get very far). To some, he is viewed as a sympathetic figure, a man who did what he was supposed to do but got shoved out the door because the university needed a prominent scapegoat. To others, he is the face of a program, an athletic department and an institution of higher learning that was willing to place image above all else, and the casualties were several young boys.

I've always written that there was never any gray area with Paterno -- he seemed to inspire either great admiration and devotion or great irritation and annoyance. His proponents touted his desire to graduate his players, his philanthropy, his loyalty to the school and the wisdom that can only come from 60 years of doing one of the most physically and psychologically demanding jobs in the sports world, if not anywhere. His opponents pointed out his stubbornness, his brashness, a pride that bordered on arrogance and the way he could attack or discredit anyone -- referees, reporters, those who dared to discipline his players -- who was not under his jurisdiction. And this was before the Jerry Sandusky bomb exploded in everyone's faces.

And here we are, nearly two weeks later, and no one is without an opinion about Paterno. He still has his staunch defenders, and now he has a whole new army of critics. This week, I've read a lot written about the man I've spent basically my entire professional career writing about, which has been interesting in its own way, like a chef watching several other people (many with far greater, uh, culinary skills) prepare dinner in his own kitchen. There were pieces I admired by folks I've never heard of, and pieces I cringed at by writers I had long admired and respected. And there was the continued heartbreaking and beautiful work by PSU alum and Grantland columnist Michael Weinreb, who has somehow managed to capture the conflicted perspectives of those both inside and outside the Penn State community (which, it should be stated, is not bound merely by geography).

Everyone is doing the same thing -- reacting to the information available. And given the subject nature, it's hard not to react emotionally. Anyone who watched Bob Costas' interview with Sandusky on Monday night or read more than a few paragraphs of the grand jury presentment and wasn't emotionally affected, well, I don't know what to tell you. Ditto for anyone who doesn't get upset at the mere thought of someone abusing a child.

That's really the whole point, isn't it? Paterno is being vilified not for anything he did but for the way he reacted to news that Sandusky was horsing around with/fondling/doing something of a sexual nature with (these are all words taken from the grand jury presentment) a young boy in the shower. The rest of the world reacted to the way Paterno didn't react, and it cost Penn State's most prominent figure his job and, likely, his legacy.

The problem, though, is we don't know exactly how Paterno reacted, exactly what he did or did not do after he heard the news. He hasn't talked yet, other than to the grand jury, and we don't know when he will. Will he be able to say anything that will sway public opinion? That will clear up any of the foggy details? Will the blame for letting Sandusky walk away from that incident shift from those inside the Lasch Building to those in Old Main? To the police?

With each day that passes, with each story that is written, Paterno's legacy becomes a little less about football. That is, first and foremost, the fault of Sandusky. But until he sheds more light on the matter, until he can explain to the public what he knew and what he did about it, Paterno's reputation will continue to suffer, if only in the eyes of those who don't still believe in him.

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