Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Say It Aint So Joe - Post 300

This is my 300th post on this blog. As the title says, I wanted a space to write "random thoughts on life, religion and sports," and so maybe appropriately this 300th post is on Joe Paterno and a subject that sort of encapsulates all those things.

Joe died on Sunday morning and I can't really say anything that hasn't already been said, but like a good preacher I'm going to anyways. At the time the scandal broke and Joe was fired I said that I did not expect him to live much longer, and certainly probably not make it to the trial. Now I am not very prescient on that, it was simply being aware of the situation, and that was before it came out that he had cancer.

He was an 85-year-old man who was experiencing probably the most stressful thing that had ever happened in his life. He was losing the only thing he did, he was losing his identity, and as is common once that was gone he didn't know what else to do. Being a coach was who he was, he didn't know how to be anything else. This is certainly not unique to him, it is very very common for men, especially those of an older generation, but it is not limited to them. I've certainly known my share of women who stayed home to raise children who have gone into a tailspin when their children left home because now they had to create a new identity. But they typically don't have to do that when they are 85.

There are plenty of people today who are claiming that Joe died of a broken heart, that the institution he created turned his back on him. Now should the university have handled it differently? Maybe, but their response should not have come as a shock. If this had come out in 1980, it would have been different, but we are in a very different place today, and Joe of all people should have known that, or at least the University should have made that clear to everyone.

As a minister I would certainly expect to be fired if I knew about sexual abuse taking place and it did not get reported. It would be automatic. Paterno was in a position to do something and he didn't do it, and as further reports are coming out he clearly held lots of power in the university, and he knew he held this power. Just the fact that he could tell the trustees during all this that they had more important things to worry about then his job, tells you what he thought.

Joe understood the classics, he could appreciate Greek tragedy, and this has all the makings of a tragedy, just one fatal flaw brings down the whole thing. Joe was clearly elevated to a status that brought with it blind allegiance, and a hubris. Whether Joe bought into all that or not I cannot say, but anytime we elevate people to incredible heights they will always be brought back down somehow and people's views of them will be shattered.

We cannot forget the incredible things that Joe did for Penn State. How many other schools have a library named for the football coach? He clearly helped people in need (great story by Rick Reilly). He stressed academics and pushed for excellence. But he clearly did not do enough in this situation, which then makes people wonder what else he might have turned his back on. You cannot separate the good from the bad, they will forever be a part of his legacy. Nor can we instantly say what we would have done in that situation, because until we are there we simply don't know, but we can say that something more should have been done.

Paul Simon famously wrote, "where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you." JoePa certainly made us want to harken back to a better time, a time that was more pure (even though it wasn't) and better (even though it wasn't). But it is probably a quote about another famous baseball player that better sums up the whole situation (although it is probably apocryphal). When Shoeless Joe Jackson was on trail for reportedly helping to throw the 1919 World Series, reportedly a young boy approached him and said, "Say it aint so Joe. Say it aint so." In response Joe simply walked away, not saying a thing.

I know that in five to ten years that Joe's memory will be less tarnished then it is right now, and that is for the good, but we also cannot forget what happened lest we get complacent and allow it to happen again.

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