”Some days, I want to renounce my atheism, so that I may watch people burn in hell.”
So said one of the commenters on John Scalzi’s “Omelas State University” post, hands-down the best article I’ve read about the horror show at Penn State University. I’m not sure which people that commenter meant, but for me, it’s the people who are voting “No” to the question of whether the Penn State trustees made the right decision in firing head coach Joe Paterno.
Decades ago (has it really been that long?) I was a reporter for the Centre Daily Times in State College, PA (which is running the poll I linked to above). I lived in Happy Valley — and yes, they really call it that with a straight face — for nearly two years. Joe Paterno was ranked somewhere between the Pope and St. Peter. Woe betide anyone who didn’t bow at the mention of his name, or who suggested that perhaps the sky was blue and white because of atmospheric refraction, and not because God was a Penn State fan, as the bumper stickers said.
I had as little to do with Penn State football as possible, so I only encountered Paterno a few times, and never had a conversation with him. As star football coaches go, he seemed like a good guy. He was arrogant and pompous, of course, but he did care about his athletes as students, not just as football players, and he was involved in the community beyond football.
So it’s sad to see him end a 46-year career in such a shameful fashion, but I am horrified that so many people think Paterno was treated unfairly. Frankly, the fact that he’s only been fired, and is not (yet) being prosecuted, is an acknowledgement that he’s not as much to blame as the two Penn State officials who have been charged with felonies.
Paterno could have stopped this at any time. His stature at Penn State was such that he could have demanded the crimes be reported and the molester arrested. There were riots in State College last night when Paterno was fired for good cause; can you imagine what would have happened had he been fired for trying to prevent children from being raped, rather than for allowing them to continue being raped? One courageous act from this man, who was supposed to be such a hero, could have saved untold agony for the victims of rape and abuse and their families. But rather than raise a hand, or his voice, to stop the crimes, he allowed them to continue. Was he a coward? Did he place the welfare of his football program above the welfare of the victims? Does it matter? By remaining silent, he forever invalidated himself as a leader, and proved that our view of him was largely mistaken.
And the riots? I saw a lot of thuggish behavior from Penn State students and football fans when I lived in State College, but I would not have believed they’d do something like this. These kids find out that their hallowed football program has been complicit in the rape of children, and they riot because the coach was fired? What’s next? Are they going to occupy Rockview State Prison (just up the road from State College) until they release all the child molesters held there? Paterno’s actions are sad and shameful; these kids’ reactions are terrifying. I don’t think I ever want to go to State College again.