Joe Posnanski isn’t just a mainstream sportswriter that I enjoy reading, he’s without a doubt my favorite mainstream sportswriter.
I enjoy almost everything he publishes, and even if I don’t fully agree with the stance he’s taking, I can appreciate his thought process (a rare quality in the mainstream media these days).
Unfortunately, with his latest entry about Joe Paterno and the child rape scandal at Penn State University, I get the feeling he’s too deep in the forest to see the trees.
To no one’s surprise, Posnanski’s take on the situation at State College has drawn positive reactions from Paterno’s supporters, primarily because of Posnanski’s usual measured and calm rhetoric. However, hidden within his words are a clear emotional judgment of media and culture in an article that ironically expresses disdain for exactly that.
I understand the message Posnanski is conveying at the core of the article. I understand that our current culture is about a rush to judgment, a rush to stand on a moral soapbox, and a rush to break the story. I understand that as society, we frequently forget about the past too easily in lieu of present emotions. We’re only human after all.
I do think, however, that Posnanski completely misses the point about the way the outrage against Paterno was developed. What he sees around him now is the current outrage, but from the middle of State College. He missed how the environment unfolded for everybody else, and that’s where his article goes wrong.
The initial reaction on social media outlets wasn’t close to how it is currently. People thought Paterno should be held accountable (as Posnanski himself feels) and that he should resign, but few were actually making him the primary target. At the outset, everybody was disgusted with Jerry Sandusky, everybody was talking about being sick after reading the grand jury report, and everybody was appalled by the actions that led to Tim Curley and Gary Schultz being indicted.
Undoubtedly, the target began to shift towards Paterno, but that happened due to three incidents:
1) Select Penn State students got word that Joe Paterno’s job might be in jeopardy, which incited a march down to his house to show public support.
I see Paterno supporters trying to twist this in retrospect, saying that it was about media ethics from the beginning, but everybody who followed along in real-time knows it was about Paterno potentially losing his job. Period.
The image of PSU students marching to his house gave off a distinct vibe of idol worship. Pictures of students holding up their phones to Paterno in the window made me think this was more like a cult than a university. Judging by the reaction from others, I was not alone in that feeling.
Perhaps the most ironic part about the student march to support Paterno is that it brought a ton of media attention and put it directly upon the man himself, something that would later become a rallying cry for those defending Paterno’s legacy and decrying media tactics.
2) Everybody was shocked when Joe Paterno gave an impromptu press conference outside of his house and said, “I don’t know if you heard me or not, is, you know, the kids who were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them.”
At that point, basically everybody lost any remaining sympathy for the man – both for the suggestion that they were “victims or whatever”, and that prayer would do anything at all when he himself had a chance to act for the victims.
3) Joe Paterno’s refusal to immediately accept responsibility for his actions.
From going about business as usual at practice to leading fans in “WE ARE…PENN STATE” cheers outside his house to saying he would retire at the end of the season on his own terms, it was apparent that he had no intention of taking responsibility for his role in the child rape scandal and wanted to do things his way to the end.
To Paterno, Posnanski, and everybody in that State College environment, he was a rallying point. To everybody else, Paterno simply didn’t get it.
He never seemed to understand that his stubbornness in this case made him appear as an aggressor more than the victim of circumstance that Posnanski and apologists want to paint him as today.
His mea culpa days later was a case of too little and too late.
As we all know, the attention has now shifted primarily to Joe Paterno, and that has Penn State fans, alumni, and supporters enraged. Joe Posnanski himself blames the media for the attention shift to Paterno and for Paterno having to bear the brunt of the burden; in short, Posnanski labels Paterno a scapegoat by definition.
But amidst all that rage against the media, Paterno’s defenders never wanted to discuss how his actions and history brought all the attention to himself.
It’s as if nobody wanted to admit that when a man who prides himself on a holier-than-thou reputation (as Barry Switzer and Jackie Sherrill know) fails morally in a case of a serial child rapist, the fall from grace is inevitable and it will be harsh.
The facts surrounding the situation don’t need to be massaged or trumped up by anybody.
Joe Paterno told a grand jury that he was informed about the incident involving Jerry Sandusky and the boy in the shower. He said he told the athletic director Tim Curley about what he had been told and that is where his involvement ended. He did not attend the meeting with Mike McQueary, Curley, and Gary Schultz, and he did not insure it was investigated and reported to the authorities.
Paterno’s supporters can say what they want about the media, culture, and society, but the facts from Paterno’s own mouth tell a clear story, and that’s nobody’s manipulation.
Joe Posnanski is a fan of Joe Paterno, so I understand why he feels the need to defend Paterno’s life work and why he wants people to look at the big picture and realize there’s a lot more to Paterno’s legacy than this child rape scandal.
However, by Paterno’s own words in the grand jury testimony and by his own admission in his statements following his firing, he failed people and he regrets that fact. It was a failure that needed to be recognized immediately as a serious transgression and demanded to be acted upon. Instead, he choose to lead riotous students in chants and say that he wanted to see the year out.
The case of Joe Paterno isn’t indicative of the media, culture, or society, but is simply a human reaction to an individual who gave the public every reason to believe he need not take responsibility because he was above the fray. Apparently exactly where his supporters are still trying to put him.
The media needs to be better, the people need to be better, and we as a society need to be better, we know that.
As a culture, we have many faults, but one of our strengths is that we can forgive those who have made grievous mistakes if they take responsibility for their actions and show remorse. Joe Paterno had his chance to do both, but instead he became a scapegoat. Not by the hands of the media, culture, or society, but by his own.