Joe Paterno and Me (and You)

I always rooted for Joe Paterno's football teams. The reason was the emblem on their helmets--or, I should say, the lack of an emblem on their helmets. There was no "P" or "S" for Penn State, no picture of the team mascot. So too with the jerseys: no team name, no player's name, just a number.

It wasn't so much the aesthetic minimalism I liked (though, to be sure, if Steve Jobs had designed football uniforms, they would have looked something like Penn State's). It was more the absence of advertisement. I took this to stand for a kind of self-abnegation that, to put it mildly, isn't the norm in major college sports these days.

It did worry me a bit when, more than a decade ago, a little Nike swoosh appeared on the jerseys (right where Jobs would have put the Apple logo). Was nothing sacred? But I figured that if the Penn State football program really was, as legend had it, a bastion of virtue, then it would make good use of Nike's money.

And I do think that Paterno's football program deserved much of its reputation. Certainly it's not the college a high school football star would pick if he wanted to get paid on the side, or have a stand-in take his final exams while he snorted cocaine. And I say this while fully aware that, as the ESPN obituary of Paterno reminded us, "An ESPN investigation in 2008 found that 46 Penn State football players faced 163 criminal charges from 2002 to 2007, according to an analysis of Pennsylvania court records and reports. Twenty-seven players were convicted or pleaded guilty to a combined 45 charges." Hey, it's all relative, and we're talking about major college football programs in the modern era. (And I suspect that at the time of the ESPN study, Paterno, by then in his late seventies, wasn't as in command of his program as he'd once been.)

Maybe the warning sign I should have picked up on was one I didn't know about until I saw a picture of it yesterday, after Paterno died: There's a statue of him at Penn State. Now, it seems to me that if someone says they want to erect a statue of you, you should either tell them to wait until you retire or tell them to proceed and then announce your retirement. If you just give them the green light, maybe you're starting to take your legend more seriously than is healthy. [Update: A commenter who seems to know the territory says that Paterno wasn't given advance notice about the statue. So never mind...]

Is this the reason Paterno participated in something tantamount to a coverup of the crimes allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky? Did he fear that the statue he'd spent his life building would be blemished if even a former assistant coach at Penn State was associated with child sexual abuse?

Maybe. But to put it this way--to depict Paterno's moral lapse as a byproduct of the greatness he had achieved--is to let the rest of us off the hook. I'm guessing that Paterno sized up his moral quandary something like this: Turning Sandusky in to the police would, in the short term, taint his football program. (Might it hurt recruiting?) And it would also be personally painful; he'd be ratting out a long-time employee and a friend. And, anyway, wouldn't he be doing his duty if he notified his superiors and they in turn notified Sandusky's foundation? Then mightn't Sandusky mend his ways? And wouldn't that be enough? After all, there was no way to go back and undo the damage Sandusky had already done.

In short, Paterno exercised the kind of self-deception we're all inclined to exercise when faced with the question of whether to do the right thing or the easy thing. When the Paterno scandal broke, David Brooks made this argument, complete with a list of laboratory studies supporting it. I think Brooks basically nailed it. When I look at some of my own failures to do the right thing, the main thing that separates them from Paterno's failure is scale.

Twenty or thirty years ago, back when I bought into a bit more of the Penn State football legend than I buy into now, I never thought I'd look at Paterno and say, "There but for the grace of God go I." But that's what I'm saying now.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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