Thursday, November 10, 2011
The complicity of silence: Why Paterno had to go
When giant sequoias fall, the sound drowns out everything in the forest for what seems like days. Whether anyone is there to hear it, the forest knows the sound and it collectively shudders in anticipation.
It hears the rending of ancient roots from the ground; the tumultuous snapping of branches and limbs torn asunder; the swooshing of thousands of leaves in a death spiral that sucks the very soul out of the air itself. Finally comes the thunderous cacophony of the battered trunk, pummeling the Earth with one last vicious cry of anguish.
So to, does it seem, when human legends fall. Perhaps none have ever landed so ingloriously or so awfully as Joe Paterno. The last few days have been excruciating to witness. We knew the ground was weak and the roots decayed. But when the crash came, it was still hard to watch. We wanted to hold our ears.
I bleed blue. I am a Penn State alum who felt honored to have a degree from the university and who choose to go to graduate school because of the presence of Coach Paterno. My grades in high school were not good enough for me to consider applying to Penn State. But after I had secured my undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts university in New Orleans, and worked two years as a reporter in that city, I was accepted into the Masters of Arts program at Penn State.
I was privileged to experience first-hand those glorious fall afternoons in Happy Valley when Paterno would lead the Nittany Lions out onto the field at Beaver Stadium and the crowd would erupt in anticipation. Since I was old enough to take a rooting interest in football, Penn State was my team. They were the good guys. And even something so innocent as the simplicity of their unadorned blue and white uniforms seemed fraught with symbolic meaning.
It was a choice that seemed to speak volumes. Penn State didn't go for splashy uniforms or flashy displays of end zone jubilation. There were no stars or acorns on the helmet to signify individual accomplishments. That would detract from the fact the Lions were a team, first and last. They played nuts and bolts football. Blocking and tackling. No one did it better.
Joe Paterno was the architect of this aesthetic; a builder not just of a football program but of a state of mind that came to be known as "the Penn State way." He developed a reputation for doing things with factitious precision. He set a standard for honesty, integrity and clean living that was compelling to believe in, even if it was hard to live up to. He set the bar so high that it made him legions of enemies among other collegiate football coaches.
Paterno took his leadership position seriously and set a standard of excellence that was never surpassed. I am not talking about his two national championships. (It might have been four or five because some of his undefeated teams never had a chance to play for a ring). I'm talking about his graduation rate. The parents of young men who were recruited by Paterno knew he would push them to excel in the classroom as hard as he would push them on the practice field.
That was his unique selling proposition as a coach. And that is why his legend was deserved. He wasn't just a great coach. He really was a great educator. The fact that he gave millions of his earnings back to the university only confirmed the wholesome feelings alums like me had for him.
His firing last night was hard to watch for folks who idolized him. But, it was well deserved. "I should have done more" was one of the final things he said as he spoke to Penn State students from his front yard. That sentiment might have sounded sincere if he had expressed it eight or nine years ago, when he first heard about the allegations of child abuse concerning Jerry Sandusky, his defensive coordinator.
But after nearly a decade of sweeping Sandusky's reprehensible behavior under the rug, of letting Sandusky use the Penn State facilities and continue to bring young boys into the team's locker rooms, it sounds like a very hallow lament. Paterno told his bosses. But when they did nothing, he did nothing too. Other children lost their innocence and were needlessly molested because of Paterno's complicity in the shroud of silence and institutional conspiracy. Unfortunately for Paterno, and for all of the people he let down, that will be his legacy.
Graham Spanier, the university's beleaguered president, was also fired last night. Two Penn State administrators under Spanier will soon face criminal charges for not reporting Sandusky's offenses to the district attorney. It is a sad, terrible day to be a Penn State alum.
Those of us who still love the school, and who still hold Coach Paterno close to our hearts, can hope for three things to happen now. First, that the families of the young men who were scarred by Sandusky and by the university's complicity in his immoral actions will be able to help their children heal. Secondly, that justice will be served to men who tried to keep Sandusky's heinous crimes a secret.
Finally, that all of us can come to a clearer understanding of the nature of evil and the necessity to bring it to light as quickly as possible. Joe Paterno's silence helped Sandusky harm other children. That's the unfortunate bottom line in this terrible tragedy.
We now know that silence in the face of evil can never be tolerated. Complicity cannot be pardoned.
Paterno's fall will echo in the forest for decades.