Over the past few weeks I've been in many discussions about this scandal. I've had a few spirited and disappointing conversations with friends. I've seen PSU family members attack and be attacked by non-PSU family members over Joe's firing. I've thought an awful lot about why the (seeming) majority of proud Penn Staters opinions are at such odds with the (seeming) majority of non-Penn Staters. Why do we not agree?
People inside and outside of this school are outraged over what happened. It is pretty clear to me that none of my PSU counterparts are anything but horrified at the alleged actions of Sandusky. And I understand that child rape is a lightning rod, so this fallout is not surprising. I also don't expect anyone to assume that Joe was 100% in the right, especially until we know more. What I do expect is that blame be allocated to those who are most in the wrong. And I even think that most people, PSU associated or not, completely agree with that sentiment. What we don't seem to be able to agree on is who to blame.
It is easy to say that the media steered the story to demonize Paterno, a mob mentality that really started to turn up the heat after his weekly press conference was cancelled. I think that is true. The media had much to gain by handling the story this way. But maybe, just maybe, quite a lot of the media actually thinks they did the right thing. After all, most of the media are not Penn Staters and are subject to what I'm about to talk about. Regardless of the motivations, as a result of that firestorm, Joe had to be fired. But why was the media's version of the story centered on a culpable Joe so easily consumed by the public and commentators? Why did Paterno's reputation, which might typically be expected to help shield someone at least a little bit, not help him at all?
I think the answer to that questions comes back to my title. Without exception, every person I have had an argument with about this has started and/or ended the argument with something like this... "Joe Paterno is the most powerful person at PSU and if he had spoken, people would have listened." In other words, the commonly held MYTH is that Joe Paterno is all-powerful at PSU and is all-knowing about what happens there. If you start with this assumption, then the conclusion that Joe willfully ignored this scandal immediately follows. If you start with this assumption, the media narrative is the only conclusion to be drawn. If you start with this assumption, it wouldn't matter if we had any evidence that Joe knew anything, he was guilty as soon as Sandusky was arrested (after all, he had to know about this... and we've heard commentators say this). Following this same line of thinking, if your assumption is that Joe is all-powerful and all-knowing at PSU, then anyone who supports him is supporting someone that intentionally buried a child rape scandal. Thus, anyone supporting Joe is supporting child rape. And, finally since there appears to be no shortage of PSU people who are supporting Joe, then all of PSU supports child rape. It is precisely this line of thinking that has lost me friends and will make the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday even more uncomfortable than most family gatherings already are.
So why are PSU alumni and students "drinking the kool-aid" and are largely immune to these assumptions about him being all-powerful and all-knowing? After all, did we not almost all revere Paterno as a legend before this? I think it is because when we look at Paterno, we don't see the myth and legend as much as we see a MAN. We've shaken this man's hand. We've walked by his quaint little house. We know his wife's name and appreciate her accomplishments as much as Joe's. We know he's done great things for our university that have nothing to do with football. We've paid attention to the mistakes he has made and beaten the hell out of him on blog's like this over his bad decisions. We've questioned his ability to lead the team. We've seen his superiors question his ability to lead. We've seen him physically unable to fully perform his job. And we have seen him fail epically before (e.g., 1979 Sugar Bowl).
In short, we've seen the MAN behind the legend. Any sane person knows that no MAN can be all-powerful when he has a contract that dictates his job status and bosses that control whether it is renewed. No MAN can possibly know and understand everything going on around them. No MAN can see the future or change the past. If you dispense with the assumptions that Joe had to know everything about what Sandusky was doing and that he had all of the power at the university, then it is not a stretch to believe that Joe did do what was right (and WAY more than many others). By reporting this to his supervisor and enabling McQueary to tell his story to the administration, he did what almost every mere human would do. In fact, if you don't make the all-powerful, all-knowing assumptions, it isn't even a stretch to believe he did the moral thing with the one accusation he had, since false accusations in a case like this could be particularly harmful if unfounded. He passed the situation on to those whose job and expertise it is to investigate and pursue these things. In other words, if you see the man, you see someone who is infinitely less culpable than MANY others in this case.
I firmly believe it IS NOT because we believe the myth and legend of Paterno that we think his firing was not handled correctly and that we are angry about the slant of the news coverage. I think it is because we don't.