“Say it ain’t so, Joe”
These words, directed at Shoeless Joe Jackson as he emerged from a courthouse where he and seven other White Sox players were accused of taking bribes to manipulate games, expressed the profound sense of betrayal and disappointment suffered when an idol falls from grace. Though Jackson, one of the finest players of his era, claimed his innocence and was acquitted in court, he was banned from baseball and became a symbol of a disgraced hero.
Will a similar fate befall Penn State’s legendary football coach Joe Paterno?
Along with only a handful of truly great coaches, including John Wooden, Alonzo Stagg and Tom Landry, Joe Pa (as he is lovingly called at Penn State) has been a living embodiment of what is good about sports. A fierce competitor and master motivator, strategist, and teacher, Coach Paterno taught the young men who played for him and all those who watched and rooted for the Nitanny Lions how to pursue victory with honor.
His teams always have one of the highest graduation rates, he has personally given tens of millions of dollars to the university, and his example has inspired an unknowable number of coaches to take the high road.
John Feinstein, a sports columnist for the Washington Post, said, “The one thing that set Paterno apart from other coaches was that he so clearly understood that his responsibility to his players went well beyond making them better on the field.” Paterno approached his job as a parent and a teacher. “Every kid we recruit is someone’s child or grandchild,” he said. “They give us responsibility for something — someone — they treasure. It’s our responsibility to give them back a better person than when they came here.”
So, why is this 84-year-old icon running the gauntlet of criticism and condemnation? Although the facts are sparse, lots of people think he had a moral responsibility to go to the police, not merely to his superiors at the university, with information about Jerry Sandusky’s criminal behavior. What a sad confirmation of the insight that we may judge ourselves by our best and most noble actions, but we will be judged by others by our last worst act.
Eventually we will hear Coach Paterno’s story. When we do, I hope we will be more generous than judgmental. I think he’s earned that.
Since I wrote and recorded this commentary, it was announced that Coach Paterno will resign at the end of the year. It was probably a time for that in any event, but it is a pity that this incident will detract from his tremendous contributions as a genuine teacher-coach.
He said: ”This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” What more can he say? I believe he is deeply aggrieved and regretful. This was a mistake, not a character flaw, and in my book deserves the benefit of the doubt. He deserves to retire with honor and be ensconced in the pantheon of truly great teacher-coaches with my friend John Wooden.