We know a lot about the guy that we didn't years ago. We know that he struggled privately with various illnesses...most noteworthy, the cancer that took his life shortly after he was fired. But, the most dangerous illness Paterno probably suffered from was a mental illness that made him believe in a reality that simply didn't exist.
In Joe Paterno's world, football, loyalty, reputation, public perception and graduation rates were more important than laws or even lives. No one will ever say that it was a bad thing that so many of Paterno's players graduated from college. In fact, many of his players were given opportunities at lives they would have never had if it wasn't for Paterno's football program. But, there were many parts of his program that were in shambles before most of the world ever knew what The Second Mile even was...or knew of the disgusting underbelly of its founder.
As Paterno aged, he did what a lot of older people do- he began to slow down and care less about the details that once defined him. In this process, he stopped looking for lawlessness and poor behavior; and worse, he stopped caring about this behavior's repercussions. It's been pretty well-documented that in the 00s and after, PSU football players were arrested at a much-higher rate than they had been in the previous decades under Paterno's watch. In spite of that, the head coach didn't see the interest in the change of the program as anything more than a "witch hunt". A few years of rough water and sub-par records later, Paterno's Lions emerged once again as a powerhouse. And Paterno's national reputation remained mostly-unblemished.
On the field, Paterno was fiery...even when hobbled by injuries or illness. His players reflected that fire with a hard-nosed brand of football that reflected the lunchpail perspective that the simply-dressed coach often exuded. But, like some other legendary coaches before him that held on a bit too long, discipline and principles were sometimes replaced with outright anger, a bully's mentality and little proof that consequences existed for the actions. But, in press conferences, Paterno's awe-schucks answers were lauded by the media and Nittany Lion fans alike.
The man could do no wrong...even when he did wrong. If he assailed an official as he ran toward the tunnel, not only would he not get penalized in the second half, ABC would cheer on the effort as spunky and gritty. If he dodged questions in press conferences, we'd hear about how he was a master at handling issues with political savvy and wisdom that young people just don't have. I'm pretty sure that he didn't think that the final serious issue that he'd ever have to deal with on this earth, was the cover-up surrounding one of his ex-assistants sexual deviancy and mis-conduct.
I'm also sure that he believed, no, knew, that he was above the law.
His grandfatherly public persona was hardly ever broken. Even after he was fired, his boyish smile and pithy comments to the student body made it seem like the entire Sandusky case was an overblown mis-understanding. But in spite what some PSU alums and fans try to tell us, there was no misunderstanding here. JoePa knew exactly what was happening...and intentionally directed people to look the other way and cover-up some of the most-monstrous behavior imaginable.
Outside of cannibalism, is there anything that our society is more disgusted by than adults that make children their sexual prey? I can only speak for myself and the people I know well...but I don't think anything is lower than this. It has the power to completely ruin lives- it robs the victim of not only their childhood, but also an adult life of much of the perspective and joy we take for granted.
YET, Paterno, part of Penn State's administration, and much of its athletic department thought it was better to protect one of their own than bring to the light this horrible darkness. This is the worst case of lack of institutional control that the NCAA will ever investigate. They probably will not give the football program what they deserve later this year...but that in itself is a different conversation and enough material for a month of posts.
The more that's investigated, the more awful this case becomes. The more digging that occurs, the more we all get to see just how dark things really were. And while Paterno and his PSU lemmings were never guilty of the repetitive act itself, they were all guilty...and all should pay in some way. It seems only just that the PSU football empire that Paterno built should be dismantled by the scandal that he covered up for a decade.
Knocking down statues and chipping away at the legacy should be the just the beginning of the destruction of a mythical legend that simply doesn't match the true story. But sadly, by dying, Paterno got off way too easy...and he'll never see the consequences of the fraud that he enabled and perpetuated.