Why Joe Paterno’s Death Makes Us Feel Bad

Why Joe Paterno’s Death Makes Us Feel Bad January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno’s death at 85 would not be nearly so sad to us—after all, 85 is not young—if it weren’t for the fact that he was fired just two months ago in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky fiasco. I think it’s fair to admit that not a few of us wonder and fear that—amidst collective anger at Sandusky—Paterno deserved better than to be a fall guy whose last months were spent watching a career’s worth of good deeds get trampled on by a scandal he didn’t create. Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant was likewise dead within weeks of his retirement, but this feels different. It feels incomplete, wrong.

I can only imagine how blindsided Paterno must have felt to be caught up in this saga in late 2011, nine years after his assistant coach informed him about what he saw in the locker room. To be sure, Paterno regrets how he handled what he heard. But a pair of statements he made during his last interview, just days ago, continues to haunt me. When describing his assistant’s revelation of Sandusky’s actions, Paterno said, “You know, he (the assistant) didn’t want to get specific.” I understand that, having interviewed many dozens of people about their own sexual behavior. People prefer to speak in vague generalities about sexual matters, and will tend to do so unless asked to get specific. But what Paterno said next was even more telling: “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good (if his assistant had been specific), because I never heard of, of, rape and a man.” With this jumbled assertion, I sensed that an old, good man had been innocently lumped in with real wrongdoing.

It’s possible, just possible, that despite our oversexed, pornified world—the one wherein we have come to presume that no adult is truly innocent or ignorant of the spectrum of sexual realities occurring around us—that people like Joe Paterno couldn’t imagine what others might do (sexually) by abusing their power. I’ve heard plenty of unusual and sometimes disturbing stuff emerge from the mouths of adults in the years I’ve spent studying human sexual behavior, but I’m not so naïve to think that therefore everyone is quite familiar with the shadow side of sex. Ignorance can be bliss, but in Paterno’s case we demanded—as enlightened moderns—that he should not have been ignorant of the shadow side of sexuality. Ignorance, however, is what he confessed. But ignorance of the shadow side of human sexuality is not wrong. It may be naïve, but it’s not wrong. Nevertheless, it got him fired. Two months later, this. It is appropriate that we feel bad about it, because good men deserve better than to be fired for their naivety.

Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem sempiternam.

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