In 1928, a pensive boy waited outside the courtroom in which the Chicago Grand Jury conducted its business. As Joe Jackson approached, the boy asked, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Shoeless Joe despairingly remarked, “Yes kid, I’m afraid it’s so.”
“Well I never would have thought it,” remarked the boy.
At Penn State we ask a similar question today regarding the scandal associated with Joe Paterno, the school’s former football coach. He appears to have passed the buck regarding Jerry Sandusky, who allegedly raped a boy in the showers of his football complex. Paterno’s apparent moral turpitude devastated his iconic status. Known as a man of principle, his failure to do the right thing may have cost him his legacy.
“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said.
Tragic events are never isolated occurrences; one catastrophe leads to another.
The demise of Paterno’s reputation overshadows the heinous act of child molestation. The commentary, news and student demonstrations supporting Paterno tell me that the real tragedy, the true catastrophe, is that the destruction of nine children becomes incidental to Penn State’s debacle.
Where is the passion for the children, the true victims of this scandal? The danger in the cult-of-personality dynamic of college sports is that perspective gets warped. Coaches and athletes become larger than their sport. Those who’ve held vigils for Paterno, those who’ve kneeled in supplication to support him, and those who never spoke up perpetuate this tragedy.
Eldridge Cleaver tells us, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Let me leave you with a story that happened in the Bronx in the early ’60s.
Vinnie, a guy in the neighborhood, got his kicks performing lewd acts in front of children. One Saturday afternoon Frankie, a local thug with Mafia ties, was holding court with his wise guys in Al’s Barbershop. I was there, vying for Frankie's attention, feeling tough.
The mother of a young girl barged into Al’s, screaming hysterically. Vinnie had just molested her daughter. She had been to the police, but there was no evidence. There never was with Vinnie.
She proceeded to kneel in front of Frankie, hugging his feet, pleading with him to do something, to bring justice. Frankie told the woman, “I’ll take care of it,” turned to his cohorts and said, “Let’s go.”
Vinnie disappeared from the Bronx that afternoon. No one ever saw him again. And Gina, the women’s daughter, suffered from this tragic experience for the rest of her life. In the unsophisticated world of the neighborhoods, Frankie stepped up and did the right thing and Vinnie got what was coming to him.
Joe! You didn’t do a damn thing! We never would have thought it! You could have stopped Sandusky and been a real hero. You once were the white knight of college athletics. But despite the disgrace you brought to football, Penn State, your players, your family and yourself, it pales in comparison to the human tragedies that were the catalyst for your fall from grace.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.