Politics & Policy

The Injustice Done to Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno, 1926‒2012
One of America’s greatest moral teachers for three generations gets a raw deal.

On Wednesday, January 25, Joe Paterno was honored with a private funeral Mass in the presence of his family and a few close friends, in the chapel he and his wife had built on the Penn State campus.

Joe Paterno gave vast amounts of his salary to Penn State. He gave almost his whole life. His last gift was a heart that was not bitter, despite the horrible betrayal he suffered at the end, at the hands of the board of trustees. Students and admirers by the thousands gathered round the chapel in silence and sorrow to show him their love and gratitude.

#ad#The next day, an enormous throng of at least 10,000 squeezed into the fieldhouse for a memorial service to show the same love and gratitude. And that is only the beginning of the testimonies for Joe that will continue to swell all around the country.

When the hundreds of thousands of Penn State alumni hear the name JoePa, they think of moral leadership, of the kind of person they aspire to be. Of his warmth, his fatherliness, his steadiness, and his granite character. Joe Paterno was for hundreds of thousands of alumni the very model of the moral ideal of Western humanism.

Hundreds of thousands of alumni think a huge injustice was committed against JoePa by the board of trustees, and they have emphatically expressed their sentiments to the new interim president of Penn State during his coast-to-coast series of alumni meetings to damp down the great anger he is encountering.

First news of the Sandusky scandal, in which longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually molesting underage boys, broke in March 2011, and it came before the board of trustees that June. They said it was not a Penn State problem, because Sandusky had left the university in 1999, though he continued to use an office there for several more years. It was a problem for the institution Sandusky had founded, the Second Mile organization for youngsters.

Then, quite suddenly in November 2011, with a huge national scandal erupting, the board suddenly acted as if the burden were on them. They did not weigh their own responsibility, their own inaction, their own failure to get to the bottom of the scandal of five months earlier. In a fit of what to many alumni seems to have been fear for themselves, the board’s members ducked their own responsibility, and in the most ignoble and impersonal way, made JoePa, the moral giant of Penn State, a moral outcast.

What did they do? Despite the fact that JoePa had said he was going to resign after the 2011 season was over, they gave Joe (after nearly 60 years of leadership unparalleled in the annals of any university) over to the national press and the national mob as a scapegoat, to bear the whole heartbreaking scandal on his shoulders, to be burned as a live offering, in expiation of their sins.

And how did they do it? They sent a man to knock on his door and hand a note to his wife, which said that JoePa should call a certain telephone number. When he phoned, he heard barely comprehensible words, that he was fired, as of that day.

JoePa, stunned, simply hung up. His valiant wife Sue pulled the note from his hands and called the number herself. “He deserved better than that!” she said into the phone. “He deserved better than that.”

What rot — without a hearing, without talking to him man to man, without mentioning the honor and glory and unparalleled service JoePa had given to Penn State, bringing it to such great national eminence, including moral eminence. They dumped, as if in disgrace, an 85-year-old moral giant. JoePa raised the moral tone not only of Penn State, but of the whole, huge American college-football world.

Few university teams graduated a larger proportion of their roster each year than JoePa’s. Few boasted as many players who spoke so openly of the moral education that JoePa had instilled in them. When they said, “We are Penn State!” they meant they were men and women of the moral character of JoePa. They were proud of having been led to make themselves of that character.

Recently the student newspaper at Penn State published an editorial asking the full board of trustees to resign. Why? Because in order to save their own skins, they did not give JoePa the gratitude due him, but instead fired him without even hearing from him. Without honoring him! Without first stressing his moral probity and leadership!

And on what ground? The board knew that JoePa had been openly cleared of any public or legal wrongdoing. He did his duty, in the form required by university procedures, without any hint of trying to cover up, or to prejudice the case one way or the other. He called the relevant vice president. He called the head of the university police.

Against this, the board dared to use a teetering moral argument: JoePa had met his professional responsibilities, the board admitted, but he “should have done more,” he failed his “moral responsibilities.”

And the board — did the board in June 2011, or at any time since, meet its moral responsibilities? It is a crushing embarrassment when a morally flawed and timid agent blames the only moral giant in the Nittany Valley.

It was so cheap for them to claim that their hearts were (suddenly) bleeding for the poor molested youths, the victims of an assistant coach gone from the coaching staff since 1999. These were the very molested youths for whom the board of trustees had conducted no investigation and taken no corrective action of their own, and made no examination of the rigid top-down chain of command that they themselves had championed at the university for some 20 years.

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Many in the national press, in commenting on JoePa’s sterling record, have echoed the board in speaking of his “moral failure” and his “tainted” legacy. If the issue is moral weakness, who among them feels morally superior enough to judge the failures of JoePa? At the very least, the man should have been given an open hearing. At the very least, those who stand in moral judgment should try to ascertain what alternatives were open to Joe, and what would have happened if he had pursued A, B, or C.

Once the Sandusky case became public in March 2011, what did the media do? What did the board of The Second Mile do? What did the Penn State board do? You bet: woulda, coulda, shoulda. And you can bet that JoePa himself, like any mortal man, was tormenting himself about those very conditionals.

#ad#Who, looking at Mr. Sandusky — a leading public figure in the town of State College, a philanthropist — imagined what he was doing? Who had the wit to stop his actions abruptly on first rumor? Who, on suspicion, investigated, investigated thoroughly? Who sought out the victims, and warned parents in the vicinity? And by what fair process should JoePa be singled out as the one who “morally failed”? As the scapegoat?

“Judge not, lest ye be judged,” was, I thought, a primary commandment for all mere mortals. There are strict criteria for judging legal fault. Judging moral fault depends on a vaster, deeper knowledge about another than any of us has. We should commend one another to God’s judgment and ask for mercy for ourselves.

The trustees of Penn State could not have known that on the very day they abruptly issued their verdict (within hours of opening their meeting), JoePa was receiving a deadly medical diagnosis of active cancer.

Put yourself in JoePa’s shoes. How cruel this dual fate must have seemed to him. From God, he might have received the cancer diagnosis with equanimity. But from the university he had served so well, for so long, with so much honor and distinction, how shattered and betrayed he must have felt.

There are not many coaches in America who read Virgil in Latin (and used to teach it), and who understand more deeply the ethical traditions of the West, both secular and religious, and who have proven so adept at teaching these codes to raw young football players, changing them for life and winning their undying loyalty. Ask Franco Harris. Ask hundreds of others.

His players band together these days and say publicly that the Paterno moral legacy will live as long as they do. What is the Penn State way? Never quit, take on the task assigned, spend myself utterly, play as one team, don’t worry about what others think, stay true. This is what they have been taught that Penn State is. What they are. What the tradition of the West is, from Thermopylae and Troy until today.

Give this great moral leader fair play. Give him elementary fairness. We owe ourselves no less. We owe every citizen no less. We owe JoePa no less. We owe ourselves no less.

[Full disclosure: My brother Ben Novak was on the board of trustees of Penn State from 1988 to 2000, and in the wake of recent events has announced that he will run again this year for one of the open slots on the board. One plank of his platform is to restore honor to the Paternos. But I do not need my brother, eminent as he is, to tell me how to think about JoePa and Penn State and college football. To check out Ben’s views, go to www.bennovak.net.]

— Michael Novak is the author of The Joy of Sports, which was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the 100 best sports books of the 20th century. His website is www.michaelnovak.net.

Michael Novak — Michael Novak is Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat. The author of more than twenty-five books on the philosophy and theology of culture, Novak is most widely known for his ...

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