Opinion

Christine M. Flowers: Let’s hope Joe Paterno hears the good news

I hope there’s a wire service in the afterlife. I hope there’s some celestial Internet cafe where the departed (regardless of their ultimate destinations) can access news about those of us they’ve left behind.

For instance, I’d love it if the monsters who murdered the journalists at Charlie Hebdo could take a moment from baking in eternal hellfire to see how their acts only strengthened our resolve to speak out against intolerance. Similarly, I hope Martin Luther King Jr. can recognize, from his lofty perch in heaven atop his beloved mountain, how his awesome presence still resonates in the world.

And I’d love it if Joe Paterno could see that his reputation has been reclaimed from the trash heap of rhetoric, hyperbole and vitriol created by those with ulterior motives.

On Friday, the NCAA agreed to restore 112 Penn State football victories it had deducted amid the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal. The agreement lifted the last of the sanctions imposed in 2012, reinstating Paterno — who died as the scandal was unfolding — as the winningest coach in major-college football.

Some of those sanctions, while arguably excessive, at least bore some relation to Sandusky’s crimes. The fines, for example, were earmarked for organizations and services that helped victims of child sexual abuse.

But others were punitive in nature, especially the erasure of all those wins, the ones registered after 1998, when he presumably found out about the Sandusky allegations. There was absolutely no nexus between those wins and the abuse, unless you twist the rational thread of analysis into an unrecognizable, indefensible mess of half-truths and innuendo.

Paterno was the Vince Lombardi of college athletics. He spent more than a half-century, well before many of us were born, molding young men into scholar-athletes taught to respect Shakespeare as much as scrimmages, Virgil as much as victories, Einstein as much as end zones.

Sure, he wanted to win. Yes, he wielded an inordinate amount of power for a college coach. There is no question that he made enemies among the tweedy academics who hated the fact that JoePa, and not some liberal twist of ivy around the tower, was the beloved face of Penn State.

And let’s not talk about the mean-spirited, envious people nationwide who resented Penn State’s dominance and its “clean” image.

Overall, the man was a giant, and the people yapping at his heels were moral dwarves. They didn’t just dislike him, they resented falling into his shadow.

So when the opportunity came, they seized upon it with a vengeance. The Sandusky affair was tailor-made, allowing them to cloak themselves in moral superiority and take down that annoying legend in Happy Valley.

With virtually no evidence that Paterno knew the extent of Sandusky’s crimes, the coach was turned into the whipping boy for the anti-JoePa contingent through the alchemy of illogical thinking. The theory went that because JoePa was so powerful on campus and in the commonwealth, he could have stopped his predatory colleague before he preyed on other boys. That, of course, presumes that Paterno knew the extent of Sandusky’s crimes and did nothing.

This is not the place to rehash the what-did-he-know-and-when-did-he-know-it meme, but suffice it to say that Paterno did do something. It might not have been enough, and it might disappoint his supporters who expected more, but it wasn’t callous and malicious disregard.

More importantly, it never justified the slander campaign conducted against Paterno, or the poisoned atmosphere created in November 2011 that clouded the great man’s final days.

Paterno is gone, yet his presence is still weighty on the campus and in alumni hearts. Paterno still marks the Valley, with a mixture of pride, affection and sadness.

So the restoration of his wins does some justice to his memory, and to our own sense of what is fair and equitable. It also reminds us that penalties should have a reasonable relation to the crime in their scope and nature. Vindictiveness has no place in our justice system, on our campuses or in our hearts.

Now, about that statue …

  Comments