Joe Paterno: RIP

Being a life-long Buckeye fan, I really never paid much attention to Joe Paterno either as a coach or a human being. What I did know impressed me as admirable. When he died this weekend, a thread on a football message board announcing his death had two basic posts, either of the “judge not lest ye be judged” nature or something seasoned with references to Hell and to cooking techniques. After the scandal broke I was moved by the oft-replayed video of he and his distraught wife trying to deal with reporters camped on their doorstep. He didn’t last long after his world crashed around him, and it made me think of Anthony Hopkins last line in “The Edge”, crouched over Alec Baldwin as the rescue helicopter came a little too late: “No, he died of shame.” I tend to be one the side of the judge-notters. I’ll try to put it into a context that doesn’t excuse Joe Paterno’s lack of going to the police, but maybe make it a little more understandable.

My mother not long before she died told me that as a teenager during a town festival one of her older male relatives made lurid come-ons to her, and she went to her parents. Their response was “you are imagining things”, and to prove it to her insisted she ride with him to the store to get what was needed to make ice cream. This of course was undoubtedly one of the more uncomfortable car rides in my mother’s life, but fortunately he didn’t follow up on his suggestions. Now my grandparents were good people, but instead of their instinct being to protect my mother, they reacted the way they did. Why was that?

Back in the 1800s, women would have double-digit numbers of children routinely, because half of them didn’t live long, and because families needed the labor. A not uncommon conversation:
“Hey Pa, how was it today?” “Hot, Ma, really hot, but we did finally get that back forty planted. ‘Course Jedediah gettin’ taken by those Injuns didn’t help none either. I miss that boy, durn good worker.” “Well Pa, best come and eat. We’ll just have us another un.”

Things improved over time with urbanization and the industrial revolution for children – well, for the ones not trapped in mine cave-ins – but in my salad days there was still progress to be made. Coming out of the “Shut up and eat your meatloaf” Fifties, youth sports was a much different animal than it is today. I can remember trudging back to the dugout after striking out in Pony ball, taunting cries in my ear of “Go sit down ya fat four-eyes!” “Ah gee Mom,” was my plaint “I’m doing the best I can!” (I tease, I joke with my beloved mother as she sighs wistfully that lightning bolts are not part of the repertoire of the Communion of Saints).

Perhaps even more of a factor than the expendability curve was the culture’s discomfort with human sexuality. Sure, now we wallow in sex every waking moment, building Tower of Babel-high monuments to it, but there was a time it was not so. My sense is not something most people of Joe Paterno’s generation liked to deal with – denial was so much more the norm. I remember asking my dad in my early teens if I could ask him a question about girls (actually a point of dating etiquette). He got so tense as he was driving that the steering wheel had permanent finger imprints on it. The sum total of my sex education (besides surreptitious peeks at Playboy at the A&P) was my mother – prompted by a teen pregnancy drama unfolding on the TV screen – telling me “That’s why you keep it zipped up.” Good advice for sure, and in at a level of granularity that is so helpful and informative to a 13 year-old. That she chose to deliver her message in front of visiting relatives was an added bonus. But before I’m accused of throwing stones, my own performance as a parent in this regard was less than exemplary. I reacted to the news that they taught sex education in our public schools with great relief: “Whew, they got it handled – excellent! (adding a Bill and Tell air guitar emphasis)” It was until many years later that I was mortified to learn that important facts like the French invented the tickler were being taught, while some of the minor components like sacrificial love and respect for human dignity were being left out. Ultimately I think Joe Paterno was confronted with something he couldn’t frame in his paradigm, and thought he acted appropriately by sending it up the ladder. He was crushed by the consequences of his error when they came painfully to light, as I’m my grandparents would have been if things had taken a tragic turn one sultry summer night.

It’s trendy today to ask the question “What would Jesus do?” I think the answer lies in the story of the woman caught in adultery: switch Joe Pa with that woman. After the chastened crowd had slunk away, Jesus would have looked at Joe Paterno with love and said “Go, and sin no more.”

Now in regards to Jerry Sandusky, he might have said to the crowd “Guys, give me the biggest rock you got!”

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