Never has a single career captured more of what is right and wrong about big-time college sports than the astounding arc of Joe Paterno.
Patriarch and victim. High-minded and low-concept. Omniscient and oblivious.
Paterno, who died from lung cancer at 85 Sunday, and his football success became so important that a large state university sacrificed its integrity and commitment to youth to preserve an image. A brand, as advertisers like to say.
Doesn’t matter that his career was in distant Happy Valley, PA., because what happened to, for, with, against and by him has meaning in Rainier Valley and the Puyallup Valley, wherever sports-minded kids are entrusted to the care of coaches who may be little-known to those who have hired him or her.
The consequences of the actions, and inactions, of Paterno and the institution regarding his one-time premier assistant, Jerry Sandusky, are a shame — and a blessing. The shame, unless you’ve gone Abbottabad the last few months, needs little recounting.
The blessing is that others who would follow in the shadows of Sandusky’s foul deeds will find it harder to hide, now that youth sports has been placed on higher alert. But even the blessing is tainted. Everywhere this story is known, something has been lost between player and coach when player and coach, and mothers, fathers and siblings, look for darker motives in the physical contact and emotional intimacy that is a fundamental part of the engagement between sports mentors and youth.
Sports Illustrated columnist Phil Taylor said it best for many in “The Sandusky Effect,” a first-person account of how his behavior as a youth sports coach has been forever altered. He no longer gives rides home to kids. Just because. Handshakes? Too personal. Let’s keep it to fist bumps.
But Taylor didn’t mention the odious counterpoint. Kids — and more likely, their parents — who don’t like a coach can threaten to “go Sandusky” on him or her, knowing the slightest rumor can spell coaching-career death because, thanks in part to Sandusky’s misguided interviews since charges were filed, any self-defense will sound, unavoidably, a little like Sandusky.
Sadly, that radioactivity will be the most enduring fallout for a man who won more college games than anyone: His inactions, and the decisions of others around him, who owed most of their job successes to him, will make it harder to draw quality people into coaching. With all the expectations heaped on young athletes’ ever-more-desperate pursuits of college scholarships and professional glories, the jobs are tough enough without having to put up with the risk of a frustrated parent whispering, “Pedophile.”
In sports when the talk turns to 99 percenters, those are the youth coaches who barely make one percent of the money now going to Tosh Lupoi, 30, the University of Washington’s new defensive line coach who is scheduled to receive $350,000 annual salary, according to a university news release Saturday.
That’s for a position coach, not a coordinator’s salary, much less the head coach.
The comparison is no slam at Lupoi, who worked hard to get to the right time and place to cash in. But his poaching from Cal via new TV money is another benchmark in the soaring investment made for elite success at the big-time level. It’s part of the pressure package that makes university administrators lay awake at night in dread fear that the expensive house of cards ($2.73 million in salaries for UW assistant football coaches) built by the athletic department won’t be laid to waste by a freak in the showers, or even some now run-of-the-mill NCAA violation involving tattoo parlors or boat orgies (you know, the good old days).
Bad as was the negligence that led to the alleged criminal acts against children, matters were compounded lately by what turned out to be Paterno’s last interview, given earlier this month to the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins. A withered Paterno, attempting to explain himself regarding what he understood when told by an assistant coach about what he saw in the shower between Sandusky and a young boy, said, “To be frank with you, I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man,” Paterno said.
The admission that he was oblivious to something the Greeks had written about 5,000 years before even Paterno was born was so astonishing that Jenkins said her own post-interview analysis that she regrettably failed to follow up the revelation with more questions. Part of the bewilderment was understandable. She described the scene of the interview, at Paterno’s home in State College, PA., as occasionally chaotic, with a lawyer and PR man along with family members talking with and over Paterno and Jenkins, sometimes all at once.
None of the reported comments included any buck-stops-here culpability. After reading the interview, it seemed incredible that a man who was presumed to be linchpin of the university who knew all and saw all, who by everyone’s account built with his football success a cow college into a nationally recognized academic and athletic powerhouse, did not understand what 12-year-olds know not just today, but when Paterno was 12 years old.
So another layer of implausibility was added to the enormous pile of disingenuousness and prevarication that has surrounded Paterno, school, community and the college football industry since the beginning of the entire deplorable episode.
Paterno is accused of no criminal wrongdoing, which has now become moot anyway. But the squabbling over the dinner table at Paterno’s house was emblematic of the attempt to massage the message into something that will save the brand. As the interview proved, more massaging only made matters worse.
It matters little how many games Paterno won, and it matters only a little more that he made many positive contributions to individual players and non-players as well as the school. Guess what? That was his job.
He certainly deserves a salute for doing that job well. But a sports theme that gets repeated incessantly these days, from youth coaches to Bill Belichick to Phil Jackson to Joe Torre, is accountability. It’s slightly modern expression for the importance of personal responsibility in navigating life.
It’s one of the hardest lessons to teach, and to learn. But once accomplished, the knowledge is liberating, freeing the individual from pursuing blame upon others, the world in general or one’s own ignorance, as if it is somehow separate. Once done, the road becomes clearer, the goal closer.
Did Joe Paterno miss knowing about that, too? Doubtful. He preached it. What happened was, he and the insular football world around him thought other things were more important, such as the brand.
If any redemptive quality is to emerge from the roaring quarrel over of Paterno’s legacy, it will be in the ability of the Penn State community and the college football industry to make accountability a concept that means something more than a defensive lineman staying assignment-correct.