Paterno’s Toughest Question Goes Unanswered

joe-paternoBesmirched by scandal, legendary college football coach Joe Paterno has finally spoken out in an interview with the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins about the controversial end to his storied tenure at Penn State.

Jenkins presents what appears to be a fair – if not overly sympathetic – look at Paterno, his legacy and, most importantly, his accountability in light of the allegations of sexual abuse brought against his former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

Yet, while Paterno’s account may satisfy the public’s curiosity to hear his side of the story, we don’t really know anything more today than we knew before.

The interview yielded no stunning revelations about what happened when graduate assistant Mike McQueary came to Paterno with his story about Sandusky. It provided no shocking insight into Paterno’s state of mind in the aftermath.

Underneath Jenkins’ stellar prose and depiction of a cancer-ravaged Paterno, the article felt like a prolonged cliche about the clash between a virtuous old-school icon and a threatening, unfamiliar new world.

It certainly seems to be the story Paterno wants to tell, one of an honorable man confused by conflicting duties.

That might make for a compelling movie script, but for anyone trying to make sense of all this tragedy, it’s simply not good enough.

Paterno had a long and storied career as head coach at Penn State, and he should be proud of not only the games he won, but the good he did off the field. His players love and respect him, and the vast majority would likely say Paterno influenced their lives for the better. He has also contributed significantly to the Penn State community in the form of donations and fundraising.

Yet, because of the respect and affection he still commands, no one seems willing to even challenge Paterno on the possibility that he had long since passed the expiration date on his effectiveness as the leader of what amounts to a billion-dollar enterprise. Paterno’s direct culpability in the case is one matter; whether his leadership might have somehow enabled such atrocties to be committed is another.

Like it or not, it’s fair to ask not only if Paterno made the right decisions about the allegations against Sandusky, but whether he should have been in the position to make them.

Unfortunately, I fear we’ll never hear that side of Paterno’s story.