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How can you react when the man you idolise turns out not to be perfect?

Few people that read this blog know me. Few people in fact truly know me. I am a loner. I live alone and I don’t let anyone get too close to me. Think Clubber Lang aka Mr T in Rocky III. I have always been this way. I do things my own way and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like the idea of setting out my life to my own set of goals. I don’t like risks. I like doing the right thing. I like living a quiet life. I have never ever truly looked up to someone…until a few years ago.

Several years ago my life was at an extremely low ebb. I had finished university and didn’t have a clue where my life was going. Then someone walked into my life. A person I have never met, never spoken to, someone who doesn’t even know I exist. However this person moved me with his teachings and the way he had handled his life. It led me to doing more research on the way he worked and the way he lived his life.

That man was Joseph Vincent Paterno.

There are a few people who read this and even know who he is or why I revered him so. He is (as of writing) an American Football coach. He is (as of writing) still the Head Coach of Pennsylvania State University Men’s Football Team. A job he has held since 1966. He has been on the staff at Penn State for well over half a century. 61 years he has given to the university. He taught a simple mantra ‘doing things the right way’ and he had the motto of ‘success with honour’.

This wasn’t just on the football field. This was in life. He taught all his kids that in life you have to do things the right way. There are no short-cuts. If you break the rules then you have to pay the consequences. He was dubbed ‘Saint Joe’ by the media. The university is one of only two major programmes in the States to have never fallen foul on any level of the NCAA (the other being Stanford). He had turned a small university in the middle of nowhere in central Pennsylvania into the university with the largest alumni base in the country. No-one else did he. He did it through his teachings and through football.

He gave his life to the university and to his kids as he saw them. Parents sent their kids to Penn State because Joe Paterno was there. A man with the impeccable moral compass – or so we thought.

The world collapsed around Paterno on Saturday after his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted on 40 charges of sexual abuse against children. That couldn’t topple Paterno but then it came out that he knew something but didn’t stop it. What he knew we don’t know. I think we will know and we will hear in time. However that time frame isn’t clear. I have blogged on this already so I’ll keep this brief.

In 2002 Mike McQueary walked in on Jerry Sandusky allegedly anally raping a ten-year old boy in the showers at Penn State. Sandusky was no longer a coach but still used the facilities. McQueary was 22 years-old at the time. What he did next is something that is causing much heartache. He ran. He didn’t step in and stop Sandusky. He rang his dad and his dad told him to come home. He then informed Paterno what he saw and in turn Paterno informed his superiors what had been relayed to him. Both McQueary and Paterno did their legal requirement but the question of what they didn’t do morally is the pertinent question.

I will come out and say this. I can’t defend what Mike McQueary didn’t do but unlike most of the disgusting US media I can understand it. The US media is full of very macho men and strong women who know exactly what they would have done. They would have gone in there and stopped the sexual encounter and twated Sandusky and called the police. Obviously that is what we all hope we would have done but I have no idea what I would have done as a 22 year-old in that situation. I don’t know how as a 28 year-old I’d deal with that situation. I want to know how I would but I don’t know. None of us do. Would we freeze and run or would we intervene? Until you arrive into that situation you can’t know so I will not bury Mike McQueary over his initial reaction.

It is clear that McQueary, his father and Joe Paterno all should have gone to the police. In all honesty Mike McQueary should have done this and if he was unsure it is his father who should have encouraged him to do so. I know Joe Paterno is a father figure but he isn’t Mike’s dad and I think that this person should not be overlooked. Witnessing such an act is mentally scaring.

The fact is after Joe Paterno reported it to his superiors then they too failed to do anything. There was a witness who allegedly saw one of the most heinous crimes you could ever witness and yet no-one spoke to someone wearing a badge. Yes the man with oversight for the police was informed but he wasn’t a police officer. This is the decision that has toppled a man who taught me so much.

I am not saying I was off the road or bereft of morals before I learnt about this man. I in fact had and I do believe still have a very strong moral compass. However this man epitomised everything that I could ever aspire to be. He was a football coach but that was secondary – first of all he was a teaching and leader of young men. Many a wayward kid passed under the tutorship of Paterno and came out the better for it. He (and his family) pretty much built the library on Penn State’s campus with their own money. They gave back more to that community than I can put into words. They instilled something in everyone who passed through the gates into Happy Valley. Being a Penn Stater meant something.

Obviously I never went to Penn State. I’m not American so I went to an English university. However I wear Penn State hoodies not because of the fashion and not because of the football team but because it reminded me of doing the right thing. ‘Success with honour’ is one of the most wonderful things I have ever heard. To have success without any honour is meaningless. Success is secondary to honour.

In no form of life (to my knowledge) have I ever acted with dishonour. I have let people screw me over and back-stab me not because I am weak but because I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I treat people the way that I’d like to be treated whether they are friend or foe. There are people who have come into my life through various means but I have always been professional and courteous with them – even though at times it was extremely hard.

I have ambitions in life but I won’t get them any other way but the right way. I won’t stab people in the back or use people to get where I want to be. I will get there if that is where I’m meant to be. I would prefer not to do everything in my life that I wanted than get everywhere and everything that I wanted but leaving a trail of being a bad human being behind me. This is something I had in me anyway but this bespectacled grumpy football coach re-enforced those core beliefs in me.

Joe Paterno knows that he should have done more. It is something he will have to live with for the rest of his life. He isn’t perfect and maybe I should have realised that earlier. No-one is perfect. His mistakes were huge but I still firmly cling on to the belief that his inactions were not in any way part of a deliberate cover-up by the man. If it was then that would be totally devastating to me and I just can’t see it. I still believe he did wrong but not through any form of malice. It is something we all do. We make wrong decisions all the time despite trying to do our best but sometimes those wrong decisions can have catastrophic consequences and for young boys and families Joe’s seem to have done so.

So I sit here typing away as I come to the realisation that nobody is perfect and that his legacy will be tarnished by his inaction on this. He did so much good for so many people for only 60 years. I’m not just talking about the football players he coached but for the whole university, for everyone who came through the doors of Penn State, for people all over the world who tried to follow ‘the Penn State way of success with honour’ that he taught. He touched so many lives and yet now all anyone wants to do is crucify him for a mistake or more he made and all his good work should be forgotten because it isn’t important.

That makes me so sad it is indescribable. I know that Joe Paterno did nothing wrong. I think I know that anyway. No-one has said he did yet but he didn’t do things right either in this episode. I am in total shock and up most disgust with how the US media are handling this story. They have forgotten that Jerry Sandusky did these crimes and not Joe Paterno. They don’t care though as they have a lynch mob mentality. They want to take down ‘Saint Joe’. I saw a piece by the LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke today and in the middle of a column calling Joe Paterno everything under the sun he wrote the words ‘This is not about Joe Paterno’ and yet that is all he wrote about.

This is a horrific story of a seemingly vile man using his position of trust and his personality and cult status as one of the greatest Defensive coordinators in history to attack and prey on young men. It is also a story of how some people failed to act to stop it is a seamless fashion. There is plenty of blame to be thrown around but Jerry Sandusky if he did these unspeakable crimes is the man who deserves the ire. Joe Paterno failed but there are plenty of other people who failed to a larger degree but they aren’t the story because they are not Joseph Vincent Paterno. The media are driving this one and they will not let it go because the media are now our moral concious. Something that I believe is one of the biggest problems we face as a society but that is an issue for another day.

For now I am deeply saddened and troubled by this whole situation. I am troubled that so many lives were affected when it could have been stopped at so many points along the path but also I am saddened that this is how the Joe Paterno era is going to end. I have no idea if Joe Paterno will still be the Head Football Coach at Penn State by the time I wake up in the morning. If he is then I suspect he coaches on Saturday. The Board of Trustees are meeting tonight to discuss whether they should fire him. It could go either way.

I fear it will go down that they fire the man who made them every single thing are they are as a university because of the behaviour of one seemingly vile man and the inaction and mistakes of many others. Paterno will be the fall guy not only because he is the very public face of the university but because that is what the media wants.

Nobody is perfect. Not even Joe Paterno. That to me is like a new world order and it is something I am going to have to live and deal with. Yet I still would trust him with everything I have and if I ever have kids or grand kids then I’m 100% positive that they could not have a better role model in life than Joseph Vincent Paterno.

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  1. neilmonnery neilmonnery

    Thanks for the comments people. I’ll (try to) keep this brief.

    It does tarnish his reputation to a significant degree however it does not diminish the good work he did to help create a better life for tens of thousands of people who went to that university.

    I have an issue with saying that Paterno ‘covered up for a friend and work colleague’ when we know he in fact did the opposite and took the witness to the people in charge and ensured he told them a full account of what went on. The fact they didn’t do their job is not JoePa’s fault – not even the American media have yet to say he was part of a complicit cover-up due to the fact the Grand Jury and the state prosecutors have in fact stated the exact opposite.

    The media have made him a scapegoat because the people whose job it was – let me repeat that – the people whose job it was to report this are still on the payroll at the university. How can the people who are responsible still be being paid by the university and the person whose job it wasn’t not be and it not be scapegoating? The fact the eye-witness is also still in a job and Paterno isn’t again screams that it is a witchhunt although the media are now turning their ire on to Mike McQueary because they’ve got the biggest story (Paterno) out.

    As for the PSU trustees having some stones. These people have decided that the people whose job it was should stay in their positions. They have the stones to fire someone who wasn’t a witness, did what was required of him but not fire either the primary witness or the people whose responsibility legally it was. Yeah some stones. If they had stones they would have fired everyone instead of bowing to what the media wanted and keeping the Curley and Schultz on the payroll knowing that they know everything and could in fact bring down several members of the Board of Trustees.

    Lastly saying the actions of the students was ‘completely indefeasible’ is poor. They are entitled to an opinion as well as you or I. They believe he has been scapegoated and the fact those whose job it was are still in a job disgusts them. The fact Curley and Schultz are still on payroll and Paterno isn’t is the last great insult.

    Joe Paterno in hindsight should have handled the situation differently. Every single person with knowledge of this case agrees with that. However is he charged with any crime? No he is not. Did he tell the truth when asked questions by the Grand Jury? Yes he did. Did he follow the procedure set out by law in these circumstances? Yes he did. The only people that can answer those three questions that way are Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary.

    One was fired after the media wanted him out. McQueary will be next because the media want him out.

    Had they wanted to keep this story buried then it still would be. Do I defend their actions? No I don’t but there is a lot of blame to go round and Paterno isn’t even near the top of the pile that deserves it and yet he’s the one that paid with his job. How is that fair and just?

  2. James Berry James Berry

    Hi Neil

    This is clearly quite a devastating event for you and you have written very eloquently about it.

    However I do struggle to agree with your position. You hold Joe Paterno up as a highly moral individual, “success through honour” and if that is the reason you admire him so then you surely have to put a much higher standard on his conduct (or lack of it). I don’t know how the american college system works but I was thinking that if this man is on the same sort of level as Alex Ferguson holds at Manchester United then it would be expected for him to take responsibility for a member of his staff and deal with it. He may not be the most senior person at the club (chairman, board of directors, chief exec) but he is a senior figure.

    It is a sad end to what good work he has done but I agree with Carol’s last paragraph.

  3. TimM TimM

    Much as I admire Paterno for his footballing achievements, I found his “with hindsight” comment deeply offensive and evasive. He had 10-12 years of hindsight,it appears likely to have cost some kids big time.

    Like others I don’t think he means hindsight, I think he simply means “if I had know it was going to come out”. He covered up for a friend and a work colleague but also for himself and for his programme’s reputation. The perpetrator it appears may have used that cover to commit further offences. He put his programme ahead of those kids.

    That isn’t about being a scapegoat for a media agenda, that for many of us makes him complicit in the abuse.

  4. Tommy Tommy

    The thing about PSU that needs to be understood here is that the guys JoePa passed this on to were only notionally his ‘superiors.’ JoePa called the shots, at least at the time the allegations were reported – he’s been little more than a figurehead the last few years.

    It’s widely known the AD tried to fire him in ’04, and Joe wouldn’t let them. If Joe had wanted the university to ban Sandusky from campus, wanted Schulz or Curley to call the cops (the real cops) wanted Penn State to stop promoting the Jerry Sandusky Football Camps, which it did until 2010, these things would have happened.

    So I can understand the shock felt by the PSU student body, alums, etc. I can only imagine what I would feel if the same came out about a man I similarly revere, Paul “Bear” Bryant. But that doesn’t stop their reaction being completely indefensible. That God the PSU trustees actually have some stones.

  5. Alex Abrahams Alex Abrahams

    Ok so now we know that Paterno has been fired, I can’t say I’m surprised and I’m not completely sure whether I think it is fair or not.
    I don’t confess to know all the details in as much depth as you Neil but one comment from Jackie McMullen the other evening on ATH stuck with me.  “The Grand Jury Report states that 6 boys were abused after Joe Paterno had been informed of the initial allegations.”   I have no doubt that he is being made somewhat of a scapegoat as he is the figurehead at PSU but he has still made a grave mistake.  I believe that everyone involved does need to suffer some form of consequences and I think Joe losing his job isn’t totally unreasonable.
    A sad end to a coaching career that I have never been able to fully comprehend the length of.
    I agree to a degree about your comments about the American media coverage of this story, its emotive subject and was always going to be high profile.  I suspect that comparable news over this side of the pond would be delivered with similar vengeance by our media.

  6. I don’t know much about this case, Neil, apart from what you’ve written. I know that you admire this man and you are no doubt right that he has done good in his life.

    However, I do know, as the mother of a child not much older than the 10 year old you mentioned, that there is no way that I could overlook the fact that they didn’t do more to protect this boy and any others who might have come into contact with the abuser.

    We all have a responsibility and an accountability to protect the most vulnerable people in our society and to be aware of an abuse like this and not to report it to the proper authorities doesn’t wipe out all the good he did, but it does diminish it, I’m afraid.

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