No Choice

It came clear to me then that Mama was right. We couldn’t take the risk. And from everything I had heard, I knew that there was very little chance of his escaping the sickness…Quickly I left Mama and went to stand in the light of the burning bear grass. I reloaded my gun and called Old Yeller back from the house. I stuck the muzzle of the gun against his head and pulled the trigger.

 Fred Gipson, 1956


It took only six words to put official end to the most successful and dignified coaching career in college sports.

You are relieved of your duties.

After a university trustee said this to the elderly man he was probably raised to emulate, there was nothing more. And why would there be? What subsequent words could Joe Paterno have heard with those first six ringing in his ears?

Of course nearly all of this goes back to what Paterno did or didn’t hear a decade ago. Most have suggested that, at a minimum, the sequence of “grown-man,” “ten-year-old-boy” and “shower” should have been enough to incite proper action. And given the world we live in, it is nearly impossible to think otherwise. The question is, what world did Joe Paterno live in?

In a polarizing (i.e. thoughtful) piece on Wednesday, ESPN columnist Ivan Maisel suggested that advanced age, and the antiquated generational mores that accompany it, kept Paterno from fully grasping the specifics and significance of what took place in 2002. And though the column has generated its share of negative responses, I must admit Maisel’s theory was the first limb my own mind reached for in attempt to reconcile Paterno’s inaction with the sterling reputation that preceded it. Moreover, each time the 84-year-old appeared on his porch this week—looking confused, muttering seemingly sincere but hopelessly off-pitch directives to media and supporters—that limb seemed a little more substantial.

Say a little prayer for the victims.

It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you.

Be good, go study.

They sound more like the speech bubbles Norman Rockwell left out than levelheaded reactions to child rape.

The further the week progressed, the louder the voice in my head nagged, “what the hell am I missing?” Could the grad assistant have minced words in some bashful deference to the grandfather figure he so revered? Did the athletic bureaucracy willfully insulate the coach from key details and hush years of whispers to protect the brand? Is it possible that Paterno’s perch atop that tower of authority and reverence stretched so high that the even the most desperate cry for help couldn’t reach him?

Or is this limb really just a straw I’m grasping at because I can’t accept the horrible alternative; that Joe Pa heard the cries clearly and couldn’t be bothered to come down.

Regardless of whether comprehension or compassion failed the coach, the coach failed those in greatest need. And the emotional and psychological body count will not vary a bit for the difference. The distinction matters only in terms of how history will regard Joe Paterno. Which, for anyone with an inkling of respect for the victims, is to say that it doesn’t matter at all.

Unchecked authority corrupts men. The dimming of life compromises them.

Whichever you believe, Joe Paterno had a sickness, and it left Penn State with no choice.



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15 responses to “No Choice

  1. Teresa Coles

    Bravo. I too can only hope some good will come of this, somewhere.

  2. Pete Anderson

    There are nuances to the series of events from ‘98 that make it impossible to judge objectively at this point. Did McQueary mince words? There is a high probability that he did, lowly grad assistant that he was, upon realizing the implications of what he saw. The reputation of the architect of the fabled Nittany Lion defense and de facto founder of Linebacker U. lay in the hands of the lowest man on the totem pole, who, with a wrong move, could have found himself blackballed from the tight-knit fraternity of college football coaching forever. And Paterno, the man in the ivory tower, even then had such a distance from the day-to-day operations of the program that the message may have been misinterpreted. One thing is clear: the debacle further exposes college football as a cesspool. When there is so much money at stake, a coverup operation provides greater incentive than truth. Until that incentive system is overhauled (lower coaches salaries, higher admissions standards for athletes, less influence given to TV networks) we will continue to suffer through incidents like Sandusky at Penn State and Nevin Shapiro at Miami and all the rest that tarnish the game.

    At the end of the day, though, the Paterno firing was not a moral judgment. It was a business decision made for publicity purposes to help lift the crosshairs off the school. Once again we find that these schools are not acting out of duty towards the communities that lifted them to such great heights with their own school pride and personal checking accounts, but out of self-preservation in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

    • True enough. Though I’m afraid little will change until we acknowledge just how complicit we are in the charade. We who buy the video games and travel to the bowls and shrug our shoulders at the truly asinine tuition figures when they remind us of the new pool or how high the climbing wall was on the tour.

      • Pete Anderson

        Do we give these programs license to behave this way when we open our pocketbooks and blindly worship our team? No doubt. But that does not make the programs any less guilty of exploiting the situation. There is very little oversight of these programs — the NCAA is a joke and has been neutered by megaconferences and TV networks — and until they are held accountable to someone, the rampant corruption will continue. The only hope at this point, sadly, is government intervention.

        Michael: I appreciate your careful treatment of the subject and the rare opportunity this board has provided to have a detached, intelligent discourse on it.

  3. Heather Bauer

    Great post, Michael. It saddens me that this is a home town team. It’s hard not to think the worst.

  4. I appreciate your perspective, Michael. I don’t know how to feel about it all—except to simply feel awful. There are just too many difficult lessons in every direction.

    I think you were brave to take it on, and I am glad you did.

    • I saw a victim’s attorney on the Today show this morning. Afraid we haven’t heard the half of it yet. Only positive will be if this educates a broader segment of the population that the Catholic Church, Boyscout stuff didn’t reach.

  5. BTW, the Old Yeller bit is brilliant.

  6. I think this is a huge and awful “Come to Jesus moment” as they say for all of us. Really, Sports Illustrated? YOU are going to publish a self-righteous article about how Penn State is finally putting “university first” over athletics?


    Every one of us who has lost sight of our reality compass when it comes to what role sports should play in society and our own lives needs to check themselves. I think athletics can be a very important part of a person’s development, but football and others sports have grown so far out of their reasonable place in university and even society’s life that I can’t even articulate it properly.

    Someone this week expressed to me, “I just want to spend a day when someone is not trying to sell me something.” Let’s think hard about how we can stop selling the wrong things. When men are making money, they rarely care to evaluate anything that might slow down that train.

    Let’s slow it way down.

  7. David LaFuria

    You wrote, “Could the grad assistant have minced words in some bashful deference to the grandfather figure he so revered?”

    Having an 80 year old father, this was my first inclination. He couldn’t bring himself to describe it explicitly to a person of an age where such things were not spoken of, and that failure allowed Joe to hear what he wanted to hear.

    That said, I concluded it impossible to accept that Joe didn’t know what happened back in 1998. The investigators may have even interviewed him. And it is not something you forget, ever. So if you accept that he knew about the 1998 incident, then his conduct in 2002 becomes far more than negligent – it becomes criminal.

    We’re in the early stages of this, there will be a lot more to come. But it does not appear that anything is coming that will cause you to amend your post, or your current view of Joe, for the better.

    David LaFuria

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