"I should have done more."
I profess no special knowledge of the sordid, sad, unbearably tragic events over the last several weeks at Penn State. The news accounts and talk-show discussions paint an especially disturbing portrait of a popular, talented and vile assistant preying on children. While prudence suggests a caveat - all of the individuals charged or suspected of wrongdoing are afforded the legal presumption of innocence - experience suggests more.
I worked as a child abuse detective for a short period in the mid-nineties. A temporary assignment, I got what can only be described as a chilling glimpse at the nastiness of sexual crimes against children. The offenders weren't readily identifiable (no raincoats or boxes of chocolates), were known to the victim and often justified their acts using variations of the phrase "he/she wanted it." Many of my closest friends passed through the Crimes Against Children unit, staying only long enough to gain investigative experience before accepting reassignment or promotion. The day my boss let me go back to my original gig (crimes committed by juveniles) was one of the best of my career.
Two things struck me while reading about the Penn State situation.
First, some of the alleged acts are so despicable as to be nearly beyond belief. Second, for reasons known only to them, grown men appear to have knowingly protected decades-long friendships, thereby facilitating additional crimes.
How does that happen? If you are here for answers...I have none. For more than half a century families enthusiastically entrusted their young son's to the care of Joe Paterno and his staff. The players received all of the glories available to young athletes and emerged ready to face adulthood. For most of us, the revelations of wrongdoing were a shocking juxtaposition to the appearance of not just propriety but of something good happening at Penn State.
Sports is not just a business, it is an experience by which individuals discover the depths of their own character, commitment and courage set against the competing hopes and dreams of other, similarly motivated participants. It is almost invariably inspiring, almost always unforgettable to the players.
Many years ago I was working extra duty at a high school football game. The contest was hard fought, and happened to be the last game of the season for one of the teams. Several players gathered at the end and embraced. Tears in his eyes, one of the tall, tough boys remarked to his teammates, "I can't believe this is the last fucking time we'll ever do this."
A truly amazing moment, witness to the continuing miracle of men coming of age. It could not be any different at Penn State - the struggles, sacrifices and hours of hard, physical work side by side with their best friends. Nurtured by legendary figures, taught the virtues of sportsmanship, molded into not just contributors but acolytes spreading the faith. Encouraging others to emulate them.
What a horrible end for "JoePa," his coaches and the university administrators, to strip away the facade and reveal cowardice where there should have been courage, silence in place of voices raising an alarm in angry defiance of evil. If we, as men, cannot or will not protect the weak and vulnerable even in the twilight of our lives...what do we stand for?
Penn State is a cautionary tale, a garden of good and evil where good men failed. Perhaps the legacy they leave us is how easily we can forget what makes us memorable.
UPDATE: It is possible to die of a broken heart. Just because there was more he could have done doesn't mean he could have done it. In the latter stages of a life not everything is attainable, anymore. Perhaps it was that realization, expressed as regrets by Joe in his final days, that took him from us. A good life's work may be tarnished by a bitter end, but it is never erased. Go with God, Joe. By and by the rest of us will be along.
*A non-fiction work, John Berendt, Random House, 1994