Paterno is still a decent man

One of his biographers, Joe Posnanski, defends Joe Paterno:

I’m not saying I know Joe Paterno. I’m saying I know a whole lot about him. And what I know is complicated. But, beyond complications — and I really believe this with all my heart — there’s this, and this is exclusively my opinion: Joe Paterno has lived a profoundly decent life.

Nobody has really wanted to say this lately, and I grasp that. The last week has obviously shed a new light on him and his program — a horrible new light — and if you have any questions about how I feel about all that, please scroll back up to my two points at the top.

But I have seen some things in the last few days that have felt rotten, utterly wrong — a piling on that goes even beyond excessive, a dancing on the grave that makes me ill. Joe Paterno has lived a whole life. He has improved the lives of countless people. I know — I’ve talked to hundreds of them. Almost every day I walk by the library that he and his wife, Sue, built. I walk by the religious center that tries to bring people together, and his name is on the list of major donors. I hear the stories, the countless stories, of the kindnesses that came naturally to him, of the way he stuck with people in their worst moments, of the belief he had that everybody could do a little bit better — as a football player, as a student, as a human being. I’m not going to tell you these stories now, because you can’t hear them. Nobody can hear them in the howling.

But I will say that I am sickened, absolutely sickened, that some of those people whose lives were fundamentally inspired and galvanized by Joe Paterno have not stepped forward to stand up for him this week, have stood back and allowed him to be painted as an inhuman monster who was only interested in his legacy, even at the cost of the most heinous crimes against children imaginable.

Shame on them.

And why? I’ll tell you my opinion: Because they were afraid. And I understand that. A kind word for Joe Paterno in this storm is taken by many as a pro vote for a child molester. A quick, “Wait a minute, Joe Paterno is a good man. Let’s see what happened here” is translated as an attempt to minimize the horror of what Jerry Sandusky is charged with doing. It takes courage to stand behind someone you believe in when it’s this bad outside. It takes courage to stand up for a man in peril, even if he stood up for you.

And that’s shameful.

I don’t know Joe Paterno at all. I don’t know Joe Posnanski either. But I very much agree with what he is saying here, which is that one act of omission, one moment of cowardice, one moral failing, is not definitive of any man. And I also agree wholeheartedly that is shameful for people to pile on Paterno in an attempt to morally preen. Posnanski isn’t saying that Paterno did the right thing or that he shouldn’t have lost his job. Failure has consequences, after all. But the loss of a man’s halo doesn’t render him a devil, merely another fallen man.

The situation reminds me somewhat of when my father was being tried in federal court. Virtually none of his peers, including a number of his friends, were willing to step forward and testify on behalf of his character. No one was being asked to lie or spin anything, merely to recount their personal experience of a man who had paid their salaries, given to their charities, hosted them in his home, or eaten at their table over the course of thirty years. They didn’t have any substantive reason not to do so, but were simply afraid of the social consequences of stepping forward and saying “this man may be guilty of what he is accused, but because that is not the entirety of who he is, let me tell you what I know about him.” I was extremely proud of my friends, several of whom volunteered to testify on my father’s behalf without even being asked to do so.

I wasn’t angry, only disappointed with those who hid behind the rationale of “not wanting to get involved”. What a lame excuse that is, as if anyone would ever seek to get involved in such unpleasantries. But even though I was disappointed, at no point did I lose any affection or respect for people I had known nearly all my life. It would have been outrageous for me to judge them on the sole basis of a single moment where their moral courage failed them.

The irony is that some of those posturing so dramatically about Paterno are exhibiting a failure of moral courage similar to the one that gave them grounds for criticizing the man in the first place. The man merits criticism , to be sure, and I think he deserved to lose his job, but it is simply ludicrous to claim, as some have done, that his behavior was on par with Sandusky’s or even the university administration’s. There is an important difference between a fundamentally decent man whose moral courage failed him at a vital moment and a fundamentally indecent man, and it is not only foolish, but downright societally destructive to equate the two.