There is indeed something tragic about Joe Paterno’s end, something disturbing about the caprices of moral luck it puts on full display. If any of the other links in the chain between the monster Sandusky and the hands of justice — the assistant who witnessed a child being raped, the vice president of the university, the board, the university police — had worked as they should have, then perhaps we would all be remembering JoePa the “moral giant”, as Michael Novak (repeatedly) refers to him. But the fact is none of it worked, that misplaced organizational loyalty conspired with what was at best moral timidity and at worst shameful cowardice to let an evil pederast off the hook.
So there is also something indecorous about the self-righteousness of Novak’s piece on “the injustice” done to Paterno. He’s surely correct that the Penn State board of trustees compounded their cowardice and incompetence in their rush to scapegoat Paterno, when they themselves hold equal or greater culpability for what happened. But just as the near riots at Penn State over the coach’s sacking were, to put it mildly, obscene, there is something unseemly about expending so much rage on the perceived slander of one man’s good name, instead of on the decade of evil that anteceded it.
By all accounts Paterno was and is a lasting, positive influence on the lives of the thousands of players he mentored. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that the good Paterno did over the course of a long life, weighed against this awful moral lapse, in the very least entitled the man, his family, and his friends to the privacy and dignity to mourn and reflect.
There will be ages for pundits like us to weigh in on Paterno’s legacy, so why focus on it now, with so many wounds still so raw?