This past weekend, Penn State chose to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first game as coach at Penn State. There were also small protests against it.
As a survivor, I think there’s a legitimate question about whether it was appropriate to celebrate Paterno when it appears as though he may have known, or at least should have known, about what was happening with Jerry Sandusky while he was working under Paterno at Penn State. I am not going to sit here and tell anyone, survivor, or Penn State fan, how to feel about Joe Paterno. Was he a great coach who did great things for some of the people who played for him, or was he an uncaring jerk who paid no attention to evidence of a child molester right in front of him.
How about, he was both?
Human beings are not so simple that we can paint them with one brush. Interestingly, on the same day this protest was happening I was on my sports Twitter account having a discussion about Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. His team was being celebrated for a big victory over Florida State, and another Twitter user was lamenting the fact that the sports world was celebrating this horrible human being, because of various incidents in his own public life. (I’ll let you Google that if you want the details, they are unimportant to my point here.)
I pointed out that being great as a football coach, and a pathetic human being were not mutually-exclusive.
The thing is, that’s true for all of us. We all have the capacity to do great things, and to make an amazing contribution to the world, and we all have the capability to do horrible, and stupid things. We tend to lump people into “good” and “evil”, but that’s dangerous. When we do that, we fail to recognize that those same people who we see doing such good, are also capable of doing awful things, and then when we should be suspicious, we aren’t. (Hmm, sound familiar?)
Should we remember the good things Paterno did for Penn State and for the young men who played for him and consider him a hero? Yes
Should we remember that he failed to recognize what was going on under his watch, even, potentially, after he was told about it, and thereby failed any number of children? Yes.
Embrace the fact that he did both of those things, and let people’s opinions about his legacy be just that, their opinions.
Most of all, let his legacy be that doing some good things doesn’t make anyone incapable of also doing bad things. When the evidence is in front of you, or a child is telling you, don’t fail them. We can argue forever about whether JoePa was good or evil, but in the end, if we don’t learn this lesson from his life, this discussion doesn’t mean a thing.