Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sad times in Happy Valley

I was a Joe Paterno fan.  I thought a great deal of how much good he had done at Penn State, and not only by virtue of winning a lot of football games.

I can't be anymore.  Not in the wake of the child-molestation scandal erupting in State College.

Paterno had been told by a graduate assistant that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had raped a child.  Paterno reported the incident to his superiors, as he was required to do by law. Which was, by law, all he was required to do.

He did not call the cops. He did not follow up on the investigation. However he may have filled his legal obligations, he failed in his ethical ones.

A friend on Facebook mentioned that he was reminded how people tend to talk about Bill Clinton and the Lewinksy scandal, ignoring all the other things Clinton accomplished while in office.  I see his point, to some extent.  But for me, the analogy is not to Bill Clinton, but to another president who accomplished a great deal but whose name is forever linked to unsavory incidents.

Joe Paterno is college football's Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon accomplished a great deal during his presidency.  He opened trade with China, He signed Title IX, the Clean Air Act  and the Endangered Species Act.  He drove the creation of the EPA and OSHA.

But when people talk about Nixon -- a president that, absent other considerations, would be listed among the good  ones -- the starting point is always Watergate.  Or his enemies list.  Or the dirty tricks his re-election committee engaged in.

Similarly, it will be difficult to think of Joe Paterno without first thinking of him as a guy who turned a blind eye to a horrific situation, who did what the law of the state required, but no more.

There are differences, of course.  Paterno's sins were those of omission, and their scope was far less grand than Nixon's.  Not to mention, of course, that Paterno did not break the law. 

At some point the good men do get swallowed up in their mistakes.  And, sadly, helping a great many young men to find success on the gridiron will disappear beneath the fact that Paterno's inaction may have caused untold harm to children too young to protect themselves.

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