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The verdict on Joe PaternoBY: Dan Rottenberg 12.06.2011
When the recently fired Penn State coach Joe Paterno meets his maker, how will he be judged? I say: The true test of character is not how you behave throughout a lifetime of everyday situations, but how you respond to a crisis. Some otherwise great men and women have flunked this test— and some otherwise obscure people have passed it.
Joe Paterno’s moment of truthDAN ROTTENBERG
When the recently fired Penn State coach Joe Paterno meets his maker, will he get a thumbs-up for 46 steadfast years of molding mighty football teams comprised (mostly) of student athletes who actually attended class and graduated at the highest rate of any big-time university football program? Or will he get a thumbs-down for failing to act forcefully against a child molester on his staff?
To Leonard Boasberg, writing in BSR, “It’s a disgrace to cancel a lifetime of achievement for one mistake that didn’t seem like a mistake at the time and that anyone might have made.” But to Bob Ingram, also writing in BSR, Paterno’s legacy as a character builder was overblown to begin with: During one six-year stretch, for example, 46 Penn State football players were charged with 143 criminal offenses, and 27 were convicted.
Both of these views, while valid, strike me as beside the point, which was first articulated nearly two centuries ago by the Scottish judge and literary critic Sir Francis Jeffrey: “Good will, like a good name, is got by many actions and lost by one.” The true test of character, I’ve argued in this space, is not how you behave throughout a lifetime of everyday situations, but how you respond to a crisis.
Benedict Arnold’s verdict
Through most of the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold was an extremely able and dedicated American general. He distinguished himself in the second Battle of Saratoga, suffering a wound that left one leg shorter than the other. Yet Arnold’s service to the patriot cause is forgotten today, and rightly so, because he defected to the British army in 1779.
Ditto for Marshal Philippe Pétain, France’s legendary “Victor of Verdun” during World War I. Pétain spent the last six years of his life in prison for collaborating with Hitler during World War II.
Where some reputed heroes, like Pétain, flunk their “moment of truth” test, other relatively obscure people rise to the occasion. While Pétain accommodated Hitler in 1940, a minor French officer named Charles de Gaulle fled to England, announced by radio that the fight wasn’t over, and set about rallying French people everywhere to reclaim their country. Like Joan of Arc before him, de Gaulle perceived France’s crisis as his own personal crisis and acted accordingly.
The late journalist Creed Black, similarly, threw over a promising journalistic career in 1964 when he resigned in protest as editor of the Wilmington News-Journal after the paper’s management brought in a public relations executive from DuPont— Wilmington’s dominant corporation— to help manage the news department.
Lee’s cluttered logic
Another who passed this test was the stagecoach and Pony Express superintendent Joseph Alfred Slade (1831-1864), the subject of my 2008 book, Death of a Gunfighter. Slade was a manifestly flawed individual who held no strong political convictions (his father owned slaves) and shared all the harsh frontier prejudices against Indians, blacks and the French. He was an alcoholic who became a dangerous bully when drunk. Yet at a critical moment, when the Union’s survival was at stake on the eve of the Civil War, Slade was handed the seemingly impossible task of maintaining order along the federal government’s sole link to California and fulfilled it beyond anyone’s wildest expectation.
Slade’s antithesis, of course, was Robert E. Lee— a man who, like Joe Paterno, consciously cast himself as a leader and role model for the young men in his charge. Yet when the Union’s survival was threatened, this purported role model renounced the loyalty oath he had taken at West Point, abandoned his country and indeed fought to destroy it.
Lee wasn’t an evil man, and neither is Paterno. But neither can be described as great, either, because neither rose to his moment of truth when it confronted him. Lee explained that he took up arms against the United States because he couldn’t lift his sword against his beloved Virginia— the sort of cluttered thinking that the incisive Ulysses S. Grant dismissed in a single sentence. The Southern cause, Grant wrote, was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Like Lee, Paterno apparently failed to grasp the magnitude of the issue when one of his assistants allegedly reported witnessing a former Paterno assistant coach sodomizing a ten-year-old boy in the football team’s shower: Paterno forwarded the report to his athletic director but did nothing further.
My own hunch is that Paterno, like others of his generation, was squeamish about sexual issues and consequently may have blocked out the full import of what he was being told. A younger coach might have responded differently to a report of sexual abuse. But this observation speaks to another character failure on Paterno’s part: his refusal to retire, even at age 84.
Because of his demi-god status at Penn State, Paterno was told years ago that he could coach there as long as he chose. In subsequent years it was suggested to him that, for the good of the institution, he might want to make way for a successor. Instead of departing graciously, Paterno stayed and stayed, flouting the most basic law of employment: An employee serves at the pleasure of his employer, whether he’s a janitor or the president of the U.S.
A childhood memory
In the wake of the Penn State scandal, I vaguely recalled hearing stories, back in my day, about a famous New York college basketball coach who had a summer camp that employed some of his players as counselors, some of whom— and maybe the coach himself— were sexually abusing their campers.
When I bounced that memory off some of my contemporaries, the response was a collective shrug. “Stuff like that was going on all over,” one fellow told me. “Many coaches were inclined that way. Part of growing up was learning how to deal with it.”
Penn State was surely not alone in harboring a child molester. Paterno did a mostly good job in the context of his times and his profession. The Sandusky affair is surely a difficult and complicated situation. But de Gaulle and Jack Slade faced difficult and complicated situations too— and notwithstanding the confusion around them, they perceived clearly what needed to be done, and they did it.♦
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