What happened at Penn State was an absolute shame, but Joe Paterno was not the one who committed the crime. He should have been allowed to finish the season and retire with dignity.
As a society, we believe so much in corporate hierarchy, that when disaster strikes, we do everything we can to put the blame on someone. The more public and powerful, the better. Sometimes (or perhaps often), we get the wrong guy.
If you're alive (or at least online), you know that Joe Paterno was fired by Penn State in wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving former football assistant Jerry Sandusky. Paterno has been added to a list of coaches, which also includes Jim Tressel at Ohio State, whose name will now be forever tainted by an off-the-field incident (rather than the most wins in NCAA football history that used to be his claim to fame).
ESPN and others are focusing their reporting and editorials on emotional appeals for the victims, while also expressing a rage of all sorts at Paterno. But I'm not so sure, when we really get down to it, that the victims and Paterno are on opposite sides. The way Penn State and news organizations are acting, you would think Paterno is the one who did the abusing. But Sandusky was the real perpetrator, and thus should be the object of any righteous rage that's out there.
Look, I come from a family that--like many families--has its (mostly) unspoken incidents of sexual abuse. It's tragic and sad; this issue hits home in the most literal sense possible. But blaming, and especially blaming the wrong people, won't heal any of those wounds.
At my own beloved Notre Dame, a college student from St. Mary's committed suicide in 2010 after alleging that an Irish football player raped her. Brian Kelly is still the coach, and little action has been taken. While some cry out against the injustice, what good would firing Kelly have done for the victim and her families? The same applies to Paterno, who has been defended by one of the victims and an attorney who worked for the victims.
Mark Schlabauch describes Paterno in this way: "a coach who was never accused by the NCAA of breaking its rules in 46 seasons, and whose players seemingly always graduated, fostering a belief that the Nittany Lions always did things the right way, even as other major college football programs' reputations were sullied by salacious scandals involving academic fraud and illegal booster benefits."
I don't really blame Penn State for rioting. Paterno is their icon, their legend. He is more than a man, more than a name. If he had been the one who committed the sexual abuse, my opinion would be different. Or, if he had ignored the situation, perhaps firing him would be more just. But he didn't. According to ESPN, "Paterno did nothing more than inform athletic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz of the allegation." I don't know the technical letter of the law, that is to say, the protocol, but clearly Paterno acted. He communicated the accusation upward, which seems like a natural response. I have a feeling that Penn State caved on Paterno out of fear and that's a shame.
Make no mistake: Penn State had to take action in a no-win public relations situation. But unless someone can demonstrate to me that Joe Pa was more directly complicit with the sexual abuse, firing him was the wrong answer. He should have been allowed to finish the season and retire with dignity.
I sure hope when all the emotions calm that he's remembered as the coach with integrity that he was.