My mother texted me, “Joe Paterno is dead.”
This wasn’t news to me. Television and social media had been repeatedly reminding me of this fact since I had woken up that morning. Her text was still significant, however, considering that my father was a proud Penn State alumnus. He had been following the Nittany Lions football team for as long as I can remember.
When the bubble of child-abuse allegations burst a few months ago, my father and I had some pretty healthy debates about Paterno’s alleged involvement and the university’s course of action in dealing with him. It would be grossly unfair to characterize him as one of the apparently-blinded-by-ignorance Penn State supporters, just as it would be unfair to say I was one of the outsiders who believed Penn State was an evil institution that whole-heartedly supported child-molestation.
However, we did disagree somewhere along that spectrum, and I tried convincing him that anyone who had any knowledge of what happened should be fired, therefore justifying the board of trustees decisions to ax Paterno. My father disagreed, however, not because Paterno is too important to the university to be let go (the tired argument that we heard from many Penn State supporters), but because it wasn’t right to fire somebody based solely off allegations.
My father suggested they could have given him a leave of absence and let the legal process work itself out and make a decision on his job status afterward. Essentially, give him a fair trial.
Even though I disagreed with my father on other aspects of the story, that was a point that I couldn’t help but accept. Why not at least prove him guilty first?
I’ll tell you why: It’s the same reason those in the media and anyone with a hint of an opinion on Paterno when he died couldn’t produce anything other than either a sweeping narrative trying to absolve him of all wrongdoings or something to the effect of “nothing else he did matters, he stood by and idly watched as kids were abused.”
Instead of looking at Paterno as a man, with accomplishments and shortcomings and with noble deeds and sins, we’ve tried to neatly organize his life into something bigger than life itself. It has gotten to the point where you’re hearing some say that the board of trustees killed Paterno. The fact is a metaphor didn’t take his life, lung cancer did.
You know what? Paterno did some really remarkable things at Penn State. He and his wife, Sue Paterno raised $13.75 million for a new library. As a coach, he brought two national championships to the school and gave the program lasting prestige. He was a mentor and father figure to his players, and always put academics first. And just like every other man, he probably held the door open for a little old lady, picked up someone’s dropped wallet and handed it back to them, and put an extra couple bucks in toward a tip.
And you know what else? Paterno made a pretty huge mistake. He knew what was going on with Jerry Sandusky and he most certainly could have done more, but instead took the easy way out and didn’t live up to the responsibility that came with his power. And just like every other man, he probably got into fights with his wife, cut somebody off on the highway and ate the last piece of cake.
Obviously some of those acts are not comparable to the others. I’m not saying they are. What I’m saying is that Paterno was in the unfortunate position where everything he did weighed that much more, and therefore was magnified. However, it doesn’t make him any more or less human.
We need to stop trying to write the ending to the story with an overarching theme and simply accept his life for what it was. Paterno meant a lot to many people, deservedly so, including my father. But my father was able to understand that he was just a guy, and deserved to be treated as such. Let’s appreciate the good, accept the bad and let him rest in peace.
Daniel Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.