It’s Saturday in the fall. That’s football time in our house. This week, there’s not been much talk of BCS standings. Almost everyone I know is talking about the horrific revelations coming out of the Penn State football program. (If you’ve somehow escaped this story, here’s a summary.)
The same question keeps coming up in every conversation I’ve had with other moms, football fans and fellow humans: What sort of character do these people have?
Joe Paterno tied the credibility of Penn State’s program to his personal character. He told the world he was a stand up guy. Turns out, he wasn’t.
He’s also not a daft, old man who trusted the wrong people. He has, for decades, donated a significant portion of his salary to the athletic program. As I understand it, he’s their largest contributor. His plan was simple: he would not be run out of his job because some monied alumni didn’t like him for some reason. He owned that program. He was their rich booster. He was bullet-proof.
If he walked into the Athletic Director’s office and told him Jerry Sandusky reportedly raped a boy in the showers and he should be fired and the police called, I predict Sandusky would not have breathed free air much longer. Why he chose to be passive is a matter of speculation. It’s not because he’s a man of great character.
I’m equally befuddled by graduate assistant Mike McQueary’s behavior in this. By his own account, he witnessed a rape and did nothing to stop it. Within 24 hours, he went to Paterno and told him what he’d seen. This implies some level of conscience on his part. But then nothing happened, and he stayed in his job…for nine more years.
This is not a typical sports scandal. It doesn’t seem to be about money, shoes or tattoos. Certainly, power came into play, but it’s not as easy to wrap your head around the complexities of power. Cash is simple. It makes sense. This strains all credibility of humanity.
Some dear friends seem to have a hard time reconciling the public persona of Joe Paterno: football legend, who coached young men into adulthood with Joe Paterno: rapist enabler. I understand that. It’s not easy to find out someone you respect is not who you thought they were. That paradigm shift is painful.
There are moments in life you define your own character. More than once, I have chosen poorly. I know mental gymnastics well. I can justify almost anything to myself. Almost. The men involved in this are better athletes than me, in more ways than one.