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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Emily

    It’s hard to “like” this post, given the topic. I do suspect you are right, though.

  • april perry

    Have to disagree with you here, Mark. Children’s emotional futures were at stake and ignorance cannot be an excuse. Whether he knew what “rape of a man” meant exactly, he SHOULD have know that a child was be exploited and that should have been enough. Last week, I witnessed a disturbing issue at work that put patients safety at risk. I immediately went to me supervisor THAT day, said I wasn’t leaving the office that day until I had 10 minutes of her time. She called me about 20 minutes later. I expressed my concerns about the situation I had witnessed. She stopped what she was doing, went in to the office of the director of the program that was involved, told her to wrap that meeting that she ws involved in up immediately because she needed her now. After 90 minutes of discussion with the two of the them, an action plan was in place to correct the measure within 48 hours. THAT is how this should have gone down. What happened to Joe Paterno is extremely sad–the whole thing. he was undobtably a good man who did many good htings and had a stellar career. But this one lapse in judgment will and probably should cloud those accomplishments. The effect of it is and was enormous. And while he maybe shouldn’t have taken all of the wrap, his conscious shouldn’t have let it stop where it did. And for that I am very sad for him and the children that suffered as a result.

    • Mark Regnerus

      I had a feeling you would see it differently, April. What you’ve mapped out is exactly what should have been done, yes. I’m just stating that his own honest ignorance–and probable timidity about sexual issues that is common among earlier generations like his–may have led him to (1) misunderstand what he was told (vaguely, it sounds like), and (2) not grasp the possibility and gravity of it all. Wrap that up in a largely male culture (of athletic administration)–women bring a different and helpful language, protectionist sensibiliity, etc.,–and I’m not surprised he honestly underestimated it all. I think we demanded he do something that he wasn’t very prepared to even understand. I could be the naive one here, but what I’m doing is saying naiveity is possible, and not in itself bad.

      • Mike

        Mark, I think you, as well as many other people need to realize, that naivety is no excuse for what happened (anyone who didn’t understand that what was happening was wrong had to be a complete idiot). Him saying that he didn’t know that a man could be raped is no excuse. Children were the ones who suffered because of this. There is no excuse for ineptitude in that case. While it is sad that he died, knowing that you should never wish that upon anyone. He had 9 years to fix the problem, and never did anything but let it be covered up.

        To put it in perspective, imagine if this happened to a coach that was of less popularity? An example, Ron Zook, who was fired at Illinois, or another fired coach Jim Tressel of Ohio State. How would the media and others have reacted to that?

  • Ann

    I find it very hard to believe that Mr. Paterno had never heard of homosexual behavior, or that in light of the issues concerning the Catholic church and such problems that he had never heard that ANY SUCH BEHAVIOR WITH A CHILD REQUIRES ACTION.

    My dad knows, and he’s 93. And he darn well would have known what to do in 2002, too.

    • Mark Regnerus

      My interpretation of his “confession” is not that Mr. Paterno hadn’t heard of homosexual behavior, but had a difficult time grasping that a man (and his assistant coach, in particular) could or would “rape” a boy. That’s how I discerned that quote. Not defending his inaction, but I think naivety around the subject isn’t unfounded or itself problematic. Hard to imagine today, yes, which is part of the point. Keep in mind, too, the generalized squeemishness of someone his age discussing the matter.

      • Christy

        Which is EXACTLY why he and everyone involved in the situation should have been fired. Joe Paterno was a VERY powerful man – let’s not pretend otherwise. Whatever culture exists at Penn State is one he helped create. He screwed up badly – as did everyone else involved in the situation. As a result, a sexual predator was allowed to rape many children over more than a decade. I fail to see why Paterno’s actions should be excused because the rape of children offended his sensibilities or he felt “squeamish.”

        And I can assure you that naivete around the subject is very much problematic if you are one of the children being repeatedly raped. (And given the astounding amounts of publicity around the worldwide Catholic sexual abuse scandal, if you are Catholic – as Paterno was -and naive about child sexual abuse, it is because you have willfully chosen to be so. I don’t care how old you are.) The reason that the Catholic church now has extensive safeguards in place to prevent sexual abuse and specific policies to address allegations is because of massive public outcry, millions of dollars in lawsuits, and priests going to jail. I’m guessing that Penn State – and other universities – will now do the same, precisely because the consequences for ignoring the abuse of children – or as you term it “naivete” – turned out to be severe.

        My sympathies are entirely with the boys that multiple adults utterly failed to protect because they couldn’t be bothered to make a single phone call to the police.

  • Jared Dockery

    While I agree with Mark, I think he left off perhaps the most exonerating aspect of the story, a point which April and Ann are both missing: Paterno DID pass the information on to his superior. He did not cover it up. The charge against him, then — if I understand correctly — is that he did not make sure that his superior had dealt properly with the situation.

    Given the two points mentioned by Mark (that Paterno was only given vague information in the first place, and had trouble imagining a world in which this sort of thing happened in the second place), and given Paterno’s decision to follow chain of command and go to his superior anyway, I find myself in agreement with Mark’s conclusion: Penn State’s treatment of Paterno was wrong.

    • Mike

      He didn’t report the matter to police. Which is, in Pennsylvania law, is Obstruction of Justice. In fact, those that knew details of the matter, would be subject to penalty of the law.

      So either Paterno lacks the intelligence to make the proper decision in that case, which means that he should never have had a job in coaching in the first place, or he covered it up. Both of which are grounds for his firing.

  • Jesse

    Another factor, Mark, is that by 2002, Paterno had spent over 50 years living in the center of Pennsylvania—one of the most conservative and “right-wing” areas in the country. In fact, KKK rallies have been reported there. Thus, in addition to him being 75 years old at the time (from a different era) he was surrounded by an atmosphere where this type of behavior was unheard of.

    The more I think about it, the more I am willing to believe that when Paterno never heard back from his two superiors, he just assumed “no news is good news.” He didn’t want to believe it to be true. Not because he was worried about his legacy or his football program (I mean, what else did he have to prove at that time?). He didn’t want to believe it because he didn’t want to admit that such evil could exist in the world much less embodied by an individual who stood by his side for decades.

  • Kathleen

    Paterno never followed through after reporting this incident to his superiors. Because of that lapse, children were raped and abused. C’mon!

  • Whit

    Lets remember that Paterno was not fired solely as a function of what happened a decade ago. His actions in the half-week leading up to his dismissal forced the Board of Trustees’ hand. His self-serving public announcement that he would retire at the end of the season and that the Board should for all intents and purposes, leave him alone, essentially forced the Board to act, lest it look powerless in the face of crisis.

  • Andrew

    I don’t feel bad.

  • Steven Hansmann

    I’m sorry. As an atheist I strongly disagree. Jesus loves you, but I don’t. God forgives you, but I won’t. Paterno, in the end, coached a team of overgrown boys moving a ball over a field of grass, or plastic grass, from one end to the other. No one will remember him, or the winning season, in the long run. The children were RAPED, apparently sodomized anally, and orally, by a large man in a position of authority, many children, over decades, hundreds of atrocities. Paterno knew, and if through some chance he did not, which I find unbelievable as he was known as a double type A personality with control issues, he should have. I wish there was a hell so he could rot there, but alas, those of us in reality believe in justice here. He should have died in prison. Maybe we’ll learn something from this.
    As for the hideous monstrosity that raped those little boys, when he gets to prison he more than likely will get in touch with his feminine side in a hurry. I worked for the MN prison system for nine years and saw what happens to things like him.


      It seems that Steven Hansmann is a little over the top in his zeal, and in his evident pleasure at the prospect of rape inside the prison walls. Steven, when you worked in that prison system for nine years and knew about sexual assaults, did you report them? Did you put your job on the line to follow through when you did report? I suspect not. And I suspect that your glee at the concept of extrajudicial punishments makes you more than a little like Jerry Sandusky. Shame on you.

      As for Mr. Paterno, one detail has been omitted in this discussion. He didn’t just receive a report, pass it on, and happily watch it disappear. He also, for the next nine years, watched Mr. Sandusky go in and out of the extensive Penn State sports facilities with boys under his arm. Paterno was a member of the good ol’ boys club, and omerta (wink wink) is the rule in such circles. While it may have been customary to look the other way, it was still dead wrong.

      Mark, I just recently arrived at this website and have now read 4 of your essays. I like your work and will follow up further. However, you are woefully off base on this one. As with your article on Gen. Patreus, I have to make this observation: in human affairs, there are usually lots of excuses, but at some point a person has to take (or be given) responsibility for what he does (or what he covers up).

      • ELSEVAR

        rats. make that PETRAEUS if you would, please. Mea culpa.

      • Mark Regnerus

        I don’t believe I’m giving a pass to these fellows. Rather, I’m seeking to explain their behavior. When I was back in elementary school, we called that “unexcused, explained.”

        • ELSEVAR

          No, I didn’t think you were giving them a pass; and, truth be told, both the General and the Coach have paid stiff prices for their errors. We may have different notions about Paterno’s degree of complicity, but likely we agree more than disagree on most such matters. I am looking forward to looking back at your previous posts. So far, your articles have certainly been thought-provoking. Best wishes to you. Keep up the good work.

  • John Cranoom

    He was just a coach of a sports team. Is the world a better place because his team won a lot of games? Stop to idol status of sports, it’s killing us. These poor boys may never be the same because of it.