Today was a tough day to be a Penn State fan. A more difficult day still for those of us who grew up with Joe Paterno as one of our heroes.
The man himself died months ago, but now it seems Joe Paterno’s legacy is dissolving before our very eyes. “Success with honor” and the “grand experiment” were his buzz words, long before anyone buzzed or tweeted about anything. He wanted his football players to achieve on the field and in the classroom. He wanted Penn State to rise from its sleepy-town roots, smack in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, to national and international acclaim. To that end, Joe Paterno got his wish, but at what cost?
The Freeh Report, released today, contained troubling details about who knew what when, and the utter impotence of men in power, the highest seats of power, to stop a pedophile from harming more kids. The one fact I found the most difficult to take was this – in 1998 Joe Paterno knew that Jerry Sandusky was being investigated for sexually assaulting a child. While nothing came of those charges – the DA literally vanished – how could Paterno possibly have rationalized Sandusky’s behavior in 2001 when graduate assistant Mike McQueary came to him with an eyewitness account of what he saw in the showers of the Lasch Building? In short, he couldn’t have.
We all need heroes, and I have to say, before the events around Jerry Sandusky came to light, I did pretty well at choosing mine. I managed to make it 30+ years with my core group pretty much unblemished, until now.
I do remember a time when I worked at Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant doing PR and random intern tasks. One of those duties included answering “Mickey Mail.” Basically that entailed sending a pre-printed postcard to people who wrote to Mantle. Grown men would write long missives about how Mickey was their hero and how they wanted their kids to “grow up to be just like him.” This was right around the time when news of Mantle’s alcoholism was just coming to light, along with his infidelity and his need for a new liver. Even back then I just shook my head.
I always had a pretty good grip on the fact that it’s ok to want to play like a certain athlete or compete like one, but leave the life lessons to the people you can count on – like your parents. If kids want to play basketball like Michael Jordan, fantastic, but don’t look to him to set the tone for charitable giving. Same thing with a lot of political leaders. They can run a country but they can’t keep their pants on. They’re ok by me to be president, but I wouldn’t want them to be my husband or father.
The tough part is, I always thought that it was ok to think of JoePa as the whole package – a great coach, who won lots of games, who graduated players, who was not afraid to lay down the law, but also a philanthropist (for donating millions to PSU), and just a good guy. I really didn’t have to do any separating. I could appreciate all of his career and legacy. Until today. Paterno is gone and so is the mystique. He’s not here to face the consequences of his (in)actions, nor (try) to defend himself.
The true “heroes” in this story are the victims who came forward, marshaling Hurculean strength to tell their stories publicly, accounts of how a demi-god in State College took their innocence and a part of them while no one in power did anything to stop him. The other people who give me faith in humanity in all of this are the jurors from the trial. The people of Bellefonte were not going to let Sandusky get past them, and thankfully so.
It’s the real heroes who stick up for the little guy, for the ones who need it most. They do what’s right, not what’s convenient or expedient. Real heroes tell the truth, even when it’s difficult. So instead of telling kids to be “just like” someone when they grow up, tell them to be better – tell them to be a hero.
About the Author
Written by Stephanie Geosits