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.