About Paterno

November 10, 2011

So that’s for the Penn State rioting students.

But let’s be real: If you wade long enough in this story, you will eventually stumble on granite, and it’s as chilling as it is unforgiving. Could this be you? Would you pick up the phone, call the cops, get the correct department, file a report? Or would you defer to the Athletic Director, and fall into that gap between moral obligation and legal responsibility?

Someone earlier tonight on Twitter repeated the old “Character is what you do when no one’s looking,” and that’s true, but is that what this is? This is some corollary, like “Character is what you do when you know it’s the right thing to do, and you do it, even knowing that hell’s coming your way.” This is the West Point honor code on a horrifying scale.

The comparisons don’t really work, regardless. These are extremes. There is no one who knows what it’s like to be Penn State and Joe Paterno, except perhaps, Bobby Bowden and Florida State. I certainly don’t know what it’s like to work with someone for 30 years, only to hear the single most horrifying thing you could possibly hear about him second hand.

I do know what it’s like to look at a situation and see no good anywhere. I had a long discussion about this yesterday, and after admitting that I might do something like report to the AD, I ultimately decided that, realistically, I’d have called the cops. Because the thing is, I’d have a conversation like that with one of my close friends or my parents, and removed from the context of everything, the social infrastructure falls away, and you are left with what you must do.

But Joe Paterno didn’t. And this, it had to happen. He had to go really. As Dan McLaughlin said, “Paterno, for years, set a good example and stood for something. Saddest part is how that gets undermined.”

Last week, my parents’ former neighbor of 20 years died in her sleep at age 82. I’ve always liked the phrase, “neighbor in the Christian sense” and it’s an apt description of Marie. She was the essence of kindness, with a lilting Roanoke accent, the kind of person who kept sending me birthday cards even after she’d moved to Myrtle Beach to be closer to her grandchildren, and I was an adult. She was also the quintessential Silent Generation member; she had all kinds of wealth stowed away — but owned the same television set she’d purchased in like 1970-something. We used to joke about the elaborate home security system she must have, like machine-guns would pop up from the rain-gutters.

When I was 11, my parents added onto to the house (over the garage) and updated the upstairs bathrooms, and staying there that summer was not in the cards.

Marie offered her house to us.

So we lived next door that summer (I read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in the back bedroom), and Marie went to her house in Roanoke and visited her grandchildren and so on. It’s not like it was a great time of need, but…would you do it? Like, really? Because I don’t know that I’d even think to offer.

These things come from different places. Charity and moral courage aren’t the same thing, but I find them coupled right now, and daunting.

Paterno failed, and that is the calling for moral courage, resolute. Because it isn’t just extremes like this when you’re an adult (and that the rioters can’t grasp even the extremes is its own tragedy). I don’t know about you, but I read about this case and I’m gripped with that fear, that I wouldn’t do enough.

**One note: The way in which Sandusky retired in the first place — one of the most successful defensive coaches in the country and heir apparent, without any other offers — suggests somebody had a real good idea of what was going on. Obviously, it could get all get much worse, though, of course, Paterno has not been charged unlike others.

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