Joe Paterno’s death was a sad business. Sad because he was unable to win the fight against cancer, but also because he made a mistake that will certainly tarnish his image evermore. A friend of mine called his life and death an “American tragedy,” tragic because he brought his spiritual suffering upon himself and American because we place our sports heroes on a pedestal from which they have so far to fall. And we also endow them with a sense of entitlement that is seldom deserved. But there is more to ponder here. In the wake of Joe Paterno’s death we are once again reminded of the growing tendency in this culture not only to turn ordinary folks into tin gods but also to shirk our responsibility.
To be sure, there were things about Paterno that were admirable, and his success as a coach and a supporter of Penn State University are well recorded. He deserves praise for his contributions to the world in which he lived. But our tendency to create a larger-then-life figure out of a man who was clearly flawed — like the rest of us — is somewhat distressing. ESPN spent the day of the man’s death polishing his image so bright that it blinds us to the man’s flaws: the man could do no wrong. This is a kind of dishonesty that flies in the face of one of the few values our culture is proud of embracing. Further, the attempt by some of his supporters to place blame on the Board of Governors at Penn State for firing Paterno after his refusal to take action against Sandusky in the recent scandal that rocked the university and the college world, or to blame the “media” for covering the scandal and throwing mud on Paterno’s image — whether or not is was well deserved — is disquieting.
In the end, Paterno looked the other way as one of his favorite coaches abused a child. After all is said and done, that fact remains a part of the man’s legacy. He himself was apparently willing to accept responsibility for his action — or lack of action. After all, the religion he practiced recognizes sins of omission as well as sins of commission. But a number of his supporters want to cast the blame on the world that responded to that wrong as though Joe Paterno himself was blameless, despite the immense power he had at Penn State and his knowledge of what was going on in his own locker room. Such a deed needs to be uncovered and we need to learn from it.
The actions of the Board in firing Paterno were entirely appropriate, and the media’s attention to the actions of Sandusky and the surrounding scandal, was also appropriate — though, as usual, the media tend to exaggerate and are given to hype. We need to learn how to place both blame and credit where they belong. And despite the fact that Joe Paterno did many remarkable things during his lifetime, he was also to blame in the Sandusky case, as he was willing to admit. “I should have done more,” might well have been his dying words.
But the tendency of Paterno’s supporters to find fault with everyone but Paterno himself is our culture’s tendency as well. We look elsewhere when the blame for our own mistakes lies with us and no one else. It would seem that this is one feature of a culture that refuses to grow up. We cling to youth as though, next to unlimited wealth, it is the only thing worth having, and continue to act like adolescents well into our 60s and 70s. We really are a culture of spoiled children who are used to having things our way and don’t know how to behave when things go wrong. Like the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, we immediately look elsewhere to see where we can place the blame. As I say, Paterno was apparently able to accept responsibility for his failure to speak out. Perhaps we should take a page from his book and accept the fact that we are ordinary folks who make mistakes and we need to learn how to accept the responsibility that goes with the freedom we like to brag about. Now that would be a legacy Paterno could be proud of!