On Monday night, Sue Paterno will tell Katie Couric how she feels her late husband has been treated by the media and by Penn State in the last months of his career and life. Couric may be conducting the interview, but Sue will really be speaking to America. Will the country listen? Probably not.
Ever since Joe Paterno was fired, over the phone, from his job as head football coach at Penn State — and especially since the release of the Freeh Report — his family has been defending his name and legacy. As described by ESPN, the Paterno family has recently been on a campaign to tell their side of the story about the late Joe Paterno: a letter on the subject, written by Sue, was released on Friday, the family’s lawyer appeared on ESPN over the weekend, and a report commissioned by the Paterno clan in response to the Freeh Report went online Sunday.
This has all been done to massage the image of Paterno in the wake of possibly the biggest college sports scandal in history. The Paterno family is fighting an uphill battle. This is partly because the facts are incomplete and partly because they involve high stakes scenarios in which few of us can know for sure our reactions.
But also the battle of opinion is so hard because unfortunately in the minds of some simplistic thinkers, if you support JoePa, you support child rape. This thinking shows a lack of appreciation of the nuance of the issues presented in understanding the role of JoePa — a lack of differentiation of concepts like legal culpability vs. moral questionableness, due process vs. vigilantism, and the court of law vs. the court of public opinion. Some of these concepts are at the heart of how our society and legal system operate, yet have been thrown away by so many in the pursuit of the figurative blood of a man many feel could have prevented a horrific tragedy. Blood has been had. Regardless of what the doctors said, JoePa died of a broken heart.
This topic has been a story for about a year and a half, and this is my first public piece about it. As a Penn Stater, I attended many games that the NCAA claims never occurred. I watched the last game JoePa coached, after which he was carried off the field as a hero. In shock I read the police investigation of a man I’ve never heard of before. I watched on TV and followed on Twitter the unrest that occurred in State College the night JoePa was fired. I donated what little I could to a charity established for the victims of the crimes. I rented a car and drove 4 hours to attend the memorial of JoePa days after he passed. Thousands of Penn Staters experienced these events in their own ways—empathy for the victims, confusion, sorrow, anger, and distress. We all have learned that Penn State is more an identity than a collection of classes.
Though Sue Paterno will surely try, no individual can control how America views JoePa. Many won’t agree with or even listen to what she has to say. But in the end the punch-by-punch debates which have occurred over the past year and a half are not helpful. Instead, let us argue less about the legacy of JoePa and work toward the legacy he wanted for Penn State: success with honor.
Penn State ranks seventh nationally for students participating in Teach for America: At THON (which begins on Saturday), every year Penn Staters raise millions of dollars for children with cancer; since late 2011 we have also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for victims of abuse. If we continue to concentrate on positively affecting the lives of others, our actions will speak louder than any critic. And that is how JoePa would have wanted it.