Joe Paterno: Old School, For Good and For Ill


Joe Paterno in better times.
  • Joe Paterno in better times.
I'm sure everyone out there is at least somewhat aware of the scandal going out right now involving Penn State's football program. A former coach there, a man by the name of Jerry Sandusky, is facing a large number of charges, all relating to accusations he molested a number of young boys over a long period of time. It's an incredibly ugly situation, to say the least. 

Yesterday, Joe Paterno, the head coach at Penn State, held practice as he usually would on a Tuesday. This morning he announced he will retire at the end of this season. Not surprising, really. This is a man who has to convince parents to let their children come and be a part of his program, after all, and you have to think that trust will be awfully hard to engender now. 

What I find fascinating is the reaction to Paterno holding practice. There was a large amount of outcry against it, people calling for Paterno to resign or be fired immediately. People -- well, a fair percentage of people, anyway -- seem to think football practice should be the last thing on Paterno's mind at a time like this, a time when his job and, in fact, his legacy, are on the verge of collapsing and slipping away entirely. 

Me? I don't have a problem with Paterno holding practice. I do, however, find it very telling as to who he is, and maybe even a little as to why things happened the way they did at Penn State. 

Joe Paterno is an old school sort of guy. On a personal level, I can respect that. I can understand it. I'm not much like most of the rest of my family in a lot of ways, but I come from a long line of stoics, and have inherited a fair amount of that legacy. The men in my family collect railroad pensions from careers of getting up every day and going to work whether they liked it or not. Your knees hurt from years of working as a switchman. Doesn't matter. Go to work. 

Paterno seems much like that kind of guy to me. He's obviously very well educated, but it seems to me there's also still a whole lot of Great Depression Brooklyn in him. Somehow I don't think he really saw going to practice yesterday as a huge choice. There was practice yesterday, and he's the coach. It's his job to go to practice, so he went. Never mind the board of trustees is deciding whether or not to fire you now or just tell you to stay gone later. For now, Joe Paterno is still the coach of Penn State, and that means he goes to practice on Tuesdays. His players will be there, and they are his players. His future has little to do with the present. 

So when the outcry goes up that a man embroiled in scandal shouldn't be going to practice, I find it fascinating from both sides. The people outside see the future looming, or they believe he shouldn't even be associated with the program. Paterno himself, I imagine, thought about those things too, but it would surprise me if he ever even considered not going to practice. Until the university says otherwise, Joe Paterno is still the coach, and practice is still part of his job. It's a queerly admirable trait, and one that I think says all you need to know about that particular breed of old school thought. 

There's the other side of that old school mentality, though. The darker side of it. The side that may very well have helped put Paterno and Penn State in the situation they're in now. 

The men who got up every morning and went to work on the railroads were the same men who came home at night and listened to their neighbour smack his wife around, and never said anything. I know that, too, is a part of that mentality. You don't go mucking around in other people's affairs. And you don't go reporting Frank to the cops because he spent his paycheck at the tavern on Friday night, then blacked his wife's eye when she bitched about it. That's their business. 

I wonder if there wasn't a little of that going on at Penn State when Jerry Sandusky was caught in the shower with a boy not yet old enough to shave. Sure, it was reported up the chain of command, but it didn't go to the cops. Why? Well, there are those who would argue it was a coverup because of who Sandusky was. Personally, I think it had just as much to do with who Joe Paterno is. The sort of man who goes and coaches practice when the world is collapsing around his ears because coaching practice is his job. The sort of man who doesn't tell his neighbour to stop popping the missus when she mouths off because it isn't his business. The sort of man who, when confronted with a terrible secret about a colleague, just might choose to believe that it still isn't his business. 

I wonder how many people have been hurt because no one made it their business to stop it. In the case of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State, we're just beginning to find out how many. Then I think of those old school railroad men who believed in keeping to themselves. Men who did plenty to shape who I am. And I wonder if they would have said anything, or if they would have held their silence, no matter the consequences. 

I'm not sure I want to know the answer, to tell you the truth. 


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