Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Joe Paterno

I went to Penn State. So did my dad. He was a Penn State football maniac. Despite his best attempts to reproduce this part of himself with frequent family trips to Penn State during the autumns of my adolescence, I have to admit that aside from the fun of tailgating and hanging out with friends, I never cared that much about football (or any team sport); although, tellingly, the one ranking system that I pay attention to is college football. That said, Penn State football was quite literally the closest thing I had to a religion growing up. At age five I began reporting to adults that when I grew up I wanted to be a Penn State football player. My room was blue and white. We had blue and white cars. My dad was the president of the county alumni association and I eventually arranged his funeral to be held in a Penn State conference room. So even though I haven't watched a single game since I graduated (other than ones where I was sitting in Beaver Stadium drinking beer with college buddies), it still hurts when I hear on the news that they lost, and it hurts when they lose a bowl game. And this scandal has really hurt.

I once joked that I felt silly when Metallica's bass player quit in 2001 just before the inauguration of George W. Bush, because my worldview was more shaken by a line-up change in a metal band than by the changing of the guard in the most powerful office on the planet. At the time I said the only thing that could shake the natural order more - the thing that would revert the whole universe to a primitive chaotic state - would be a Penn State football team without Joe Paterno coaching. And that was assuming that he would exit gracefully with adoring fans thronging him. It's not going to happen that way now.

This is sad for many reasons. It's sad first and foremost because of what happened to the kids involved. It's sad if people acted to protect the institution more than the kids, as also seems to be the case; and the justice system will find these things out. But what's also sad is that, regardless of any mistakes he made in this affair, Paterno is a one-of-a-kind who (to understate it) worked very hard to keep values in college football. Bad grades and behavior could and would get you thrown off the team. Really. And he no doubt lost games because of it, and he no doubt lost recruits who went elsewhere where they knew they could get away with bad behavior - but he was willing to make that trade. Where else in college athletics has that been the rule for a half century? Of course, whatever anyone did, none of that makes it okay.

Joe turned down opportunities to go pro to stay at Penn State. Huge amounts of his money have gone to the library and, mostly, to other non-athletic institutions. His house, just off campus, is well-known by students and, while nice, is certainly not huge or attention-drawing. And just two weeks ago he officially became the winningest coach in college football history. I had thought he would retire anyway, but now he'll leave under this cloud. I hope it doesn't pollute his whole legacy because he was an example for all of athletics, and I hope any mistakes were sins of omission. But ultimately football is a game, and real life - the lives of these kids - is more important. And justice will tell us what happened, and that's what I'm waiting for.


Derrick said...

As scarlet and grey bleeding Buckeye, I feel your pain. It just doesn't seem right that JoPa is going out this way.

Derrick Peterman said...

As a Scarlet and Grey bleeding Buckeye, I feel your pain. It all just doesn't seem right.

Michael Caton said...

Thanks for your comment Derrick. It's sad all around.