Joe Paterno died yesterday from lung cancer. The Penn State football coach was synonymous with athletic greatness for the vast majority of his life, and at the very end, was mired in a nauseating sexual abuse scandal. In recent months, he’s been alternately reviled and lauded, both for his feats on the gridiron, and his massive failures in overlooking heinous crimes committed on his watch.
I liked Joe Paterno. There was something very old school about his demeanor on the sidelines, which reminded me much of my grandparents’ generation. He was courtly, restrained and proud. And those very traits for which I admired him were precisely the traits which led to his firing. He’s a case study in what can happen to pretty much any one of us.
Americans these days love simplicity. We have a binary mind when it comes to thinking. Things either are, or they aren’t. Black or white. But that juvenile mentality doesn’t serve us well. Things are rarely pure and simple. In Joe Paterno’s case, he had a wildly successful career that was marred only at the very end by allegations that ripped his reputation apart, both on and off the field.
In his passing, I would urge those of us amongst us to be gentle. Yes, that wasn’t a consideration that was extended to the victims of the sexual abuse that took place on his watch, but we can be better than that. There are many highly important people in our history who have highly mixed legacies. Take, for example, Henry Ford. He was a visionary of the first rank, a genius that made the prospect of buying a car a reality for millions of Americans who hitherto had not been even able to dream about it. Yet he was also a virulent anti-Semite and bigot who cavorted with the likes of Adolf Hitler, and terrorized the lives of thousands of his own workers. Should we stop driving Fords just because of these transgressions?
Henry Ford, like Joe Paterno, was a flawed man. As we all are. And in dissecting both of their legacies, it’s best to take the long view of their lives, and consider them as a whole, rather than focusing on episodic traits. Joe Paterno was an outstanding coach, and yet he failed miserably off the field. All of us can profit by his example, in striving for the kinds of achievements he reached, and avoiding the downfalls that eventually besmirched his otherwise sterling reputation. The world is now short one very good man, who had some glaring defects. That’s the obituary, really, that could be written about a lot of people. To err is human. To forgive, divine.