Paterno Revisited

A poll conducted by E.S.P.N. revealed recently that 51% of those polled approve of Penn State’s firing of Joe Paterno. That’s interesting, but not half as interesting as the other 49%. I assume that some of them have “no opinion,” an interesting condition to be in, I must say. But the remainder apparently think that the university was wrong to fire the man. What are they thinking?

To begin with, Joe Paterno is not the victim here. Assuming that the allegations in the case are well founded, the young boys who were molested by Jerry Sandusky are the victims (plural). Paterno has been hoist by his own petard; he made his bed and now he must lie in it. He failed to demand a complete investigation of the affair when he was able to intercede and he knew that an evil was being committed; he is culpable. Sympathy for the man, while understandable on its surface, is out of place — as Virgil pointed out to Dante when they worked their way through Hell. Just as those being punished were there by virtue of their own actions, so also Paterno suffers from the consequences of his own actions — or his failure to act.

To be sure, Joe Paterno seemed to be something that is lacking in today’s culture: a public figure deserving our adulation, a true hero. Yet he turned out to have feet of clay, like the rest of us. It is disillusioning and a sad business, but hardly tragic as Aristotle reminds us: the man, Paterno, lacks the quality of nobility and his “fall” was not that far. He is a wealthy man with a close family and a great many friends and he will doubtless manage to muddle through. But what about the others, the real victims here? Their lives will never be the same and they are the ones we must look to with sympathy, not the man who chose to ignore them. Paterno’s firing is mild punishment for a man who chose to look the other way

The issue involving Joe Paterno is quite simple at its center: we are responsible for the  things we choose to do as well as those things we choose not to do. That has been at the center of ethical theory for centuries. Religions, too, recognize sins of omission as well as sins of commission. Paterno is getting his just desserts. Sympathy for the man, including staged appearances by his former players, like Franco Harris, are tangential to the real issue which will always remain the damage that was done to at least eight young boys (that we know about) who were abused by Jerry Sandusky.

In the meantime, Sandusky was allowed out of jail on a measly $100,000 bail and is now wandering around Happy Valley, being interviewed by Bob Costas and proclaiming his innocence to a world that will soon have to try him. That is something for people to get upset about, and a curious scenario to say the least.

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