I can’t understand the level of support I’ve seen for former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno over the last forty-eight hours.  You’d almost swear that the university fired him for minor recruiting violations or poor effort on the field, and not his involvement in covering-up the systematic, sexual abuse of children at Penn State.  Nearly every other scandal in NCAA history pales in comparison to what has come out in Happy Valley over the last week, and the truth of it is frightening.  So frightening, in fact, that many can’t face it, let alone accept it.

There are those in State College apparently so beholden to the “legend” of Joe Paterno that they willingly tune-out the details, or worse, take drastic action to defend a man of which they truly don’t know.

On Wednesday night, when the Penn State Board of Trustees announced Paterno’s ouster in a press conference, groans from supposed “journalists” could be heard aloud, immediately protesting the decision.  This set the table for the main course of the evening, a macabre and disgraceful display of student rioting, which included the overturning of a news truck amid shouts of “we love Joe!”

Why is there such difficulty in accepting that even our icons are flawed, or in Paterno’s case, much worse?

It wasn’t so long ago that details about Walter Payton’s various transgressions hit newsstands as part of the Jeff Pearlman book “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.”  Allegations of prescription drug abuse and extramarital affairs, confirmed by multiple sources, reduced Payton from the mythic character many had pictured him to a closer truth of what he really was: a complicated man of many parts.  Unfortunately, the dumbest voices out there are often the loudest, and out in front tearing the book apart was none other than Mike Ditka, who said he’d spit on Pearlman if he saw him in person.  For some reason, Ditka still carries weight in Chicago twenty years after he was last relevant, so some took Ditka’s words to heart, savaging Pearlman’s book and the author himself while questioning his methods and motives.

The truth doesn’t always fit the easy-to-swallow narrative, so in many cases it gets discarded.  Obviously, there is no comparison between discussing specific details in the Payton book and the monstrous sins of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State.  Yet in both cases, sizable portions of people blindly ignore the truth; Paterno defenders may not endorse repeated child rape, but by supporting Paterno, they rubber-stamp criminal negligence and a cover-up to protect a high-stakes college football program as acceptable behavior.

The harder the truth to face, the more they hide from it.

Did these enablers not read the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury report, or are they too afraid to confront the truth?

Even without reading the report page for page, various news outlets have thoroughly reported on the most salacious details in the case. So any excuse made for Paterno and the program borne out of not knowing the story simply does not compute.

I would urge everyone to at least attempt to read the report, though I’m willing to wager you won’t make it the whole way through.  The allegations inside, presented in great detail, are that disturbing.  Any normal person couldn’t possibly read that report and defend Paterno’s inaction, his utter failure.  A supremely powerful man who preached “success with honor” did not reach out to police, did not permanently remove Jerry Sandusky from campus facilities and did not take a stand in protecting children.

We can’t tell that to Penn Staters though — many of whom firmly latching on to any excuse they could in defending their coach.  Idiotic shouts from Pennsylvania townies and various morons on Twitter cried foul, and even men I consider fairly thoughtful provided cringe-worthy commentary on the subject.

“Obviously, there is a situation that I know nothing about…so I am not going to answer any questions (about it),” Bears kicker, Robbie Gould, told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday.  “But Joe was a great coach when I was there, and he has always been a great coach.”

That’s it Robbie, bury your head in the sand too.

I realize how inconvenient it would be for you to reconsider your college experience and learn the truth, so we’ll leave you alone for now.  I didn’t play college football; but if a hideous scandal erupted at my alma mater, involving people I worked with during my time there, I would demand answers and find out as much as I possibly could.  We might not like what we find, but we need to seek truth, unapologetically and unflinchingly.

Joe Paterno’s failure to confront the truth about Jerry Sandusky and his apparent fear of exposing his football program ruined lives and created even more victims.

“The kids who were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them,” Paterno said earlier this week.  “It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you.”

I’m sorry, but “Shit happens” isn’t a very contrite statement from a man who built a reputation on “integrity.”  Paterno seems unaware of his sins, as if they only affected his status as a football coach and extended no further.

Ultimately, many fans have too difficult a time separating the on-the-field from the rest, assuming that greatness between the lines equates to perfection in all aspects of a man’s life.  This simple-minded, black-or-white approach puts too much stock into what we see on the field each week, creating cartoonish “legends” like Paterno.  Whatever heroic qualities we saw in Paterno no longer exist following these wretched events.  Yet in the minds of too many, he remains unblemished, a symbol of what’s good, a symbol of how to be a man, a leader and a real legend.

He failed the greatest test of his life and he let down everyone, even his most adamant of supporters.  I only wish those supporters would realize it.


Brendan McCaffrey works in Chicago radio for 670 AM, “The Score” and chicagolandsportsradio.com.  You can hear him on chicagolandsportsradio.com every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8am to 10am central.  Follow Brendan McCaffrey @bmac670

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