The Problem with Paterno

I’m related to Joe Paterno; he was my uncle on the ESPN side of the family.

That is to say, I knew so much about Joe, and he came into my home so often by dint of his celebrity and my love of football, that he seemed closer than many of my relatives.

In point of fact, I never met Paterno.  But he was part of the pantheon of sports celebrity demigods who inhabited my life and the lives of all American athletics-loving males.

So the tragic story, now familiar to most Americans, of his culpability in the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal, hits home almost as if an uncle had done what Joe did, or more precisely, what Joe failed to do.  Exercise moral authority and turn Sandusky over to authorities when the sexual abuse first came to light.

He didn’t, he died, and he we are.

The core lesson of the Paterno story has been mangled, or missed entirely, by the media, both mainstream and sports.

It’s not that Paterno was a football coach whose legacy was tarnished because he protected and enabled a man who had sex with boys.

It’s that he was a man who protected and enabled a man who had sex with boys, and along the way, was a football coach that led his team to win many games.

In other words, Paterno no longer has a legacy, unless enabling molesters is a legacy.

The greater lesson is that yet again, a celebrity culture has permitted an evildoer to get a pass, and has the rest of us wringing our hands over whether to take down his statue and suspend the football program at Penn State.

The most important lesson is that we have to stop falling for celebrities. And yet, in a media- and money-driven society, celebrities are too much admired to be held to the same basic standards of accountability that we hold one another.

Justin Bieber leads a posse of paparazzi down the 101 freeway at high speed, endangering other drivers?  That’s entertainment. Lindsey Lohan blowing off another court appearance because she’s too high to remember to show up?  She hasn’t lost a single fan. Yet another Kennedy driving drunk?  No problem.  No probation.  Just take it easy, cutie pie.

We’re all complicit in Joe’s guilt, because we’re the ones who turned a coach who never retired, into a celebrity who never understood what morality really meant.  Paterno didn’t build his own statue; we did—we, the consumers of the celebrity culture.

We gave him a pass, and boy, did he use it.

If he’d cheated on his taxes, or his wife, that would be one thing.  But the heinous nature of his acts make it astonishing that he has any legacy left to discuss.

Parents trusted him with their sons.  Fans trusted him with admiration.

Remarkably, his legendary football achievements still outweigh, in the mind of many, the harm he caused the kids who fell under Jerry Sandusky’s sway.


Why do we lionize celebrities, only to turn on them once they develop feet of clay?

The best answer comes from Ernst Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, published four decades ago.  Becker wrote that human beings were half-god, half-mortal, in that we can create but we also are aware that we are going to die.  We are literally reminded of our mortality every time we go to the bathroom.

Becker called humans “gods who s**t.”

Celebrities, be they politicians, actors, Kardashians, or football coaches, possess more power than we do.  So we attach our hopes and dreams to them, desirous of attaining through them the ultimate power, immortality.

That’s why we idolize the famous, because we see them as a bulwark against our fear of death.

Heavy stuff, but it goes a long way toward why we make statues out of people and then get so upset when they turn out to be human.  It’s because they don’t have that ability to grant immortality to us by living vicariously through them, and we hate them for it.

Paterno, inexplicably, has retained his celebrity luster, perhaps because the crime he enabled is so unthinkable.

The ultimate truth of Paterno’s collapse comes from another sports figure who quoted Shakespeare and the Bible to make a point.

The sports figure:  Red Barber, the pioneering baseball announcer, back in 1986, when Bob Edwards of NPR’s Morning Edition asked him to place Bill Buckner’s World Series error in historical perspective.

Barber compared Buckner to Mickey Owen, a great catcher who was remembered not for his successful career behind the plate but for a fielding error that cost his Brooklyn Dodgers the 1941 World Series. Buckner, Barber reminded listeners, had been a stellar fielder and hitter for many years, but all that would now be overshadowed by his failure to make the play on Mookie Wilson’s seeing-eye single.

“It just shows you, Colonel Bob,” Barber explained, “that we should be careful with our actions as we go through this vale of tears.  Because as Shakespeare wrote, ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good that men do is oft interred with their bones.’”

If only Joe Paterno had been listening.

(New York Times best-selling author Michael Levin runs, which ghostwrites books and social media content.)