Monday, January 23, 2012
Joe Paterno, Charlie Lavia, and the principle of "hear no evil"
Let me start this by saying that Penn State was absolutely appropriate in its decision to fire Joe Paterno. The football program was Paterno's, and even though he didn't abuse anyone, the buck stops with the person at the top of the pyramid. So as tragic as the removal was, the school had no choice.
But since Paterno's death the other day, I've been thinking a lot about how that whole situation unfurled. And I have to say, with great certainty, that I understand why Paterno behaved the way he did through the Sandusky scandal.
Although there was, thankfully, no abuse in my family, there was an old Italian man. And old Italian men rarely react to anything in a way that makes a whole lot of sense to the majority of people.
My dad was 91 when he died last year, and one of the great consistencies of his life was that he did his best to avoid talking about anything unpleasant. He'd hear about something bad that had happened to someone, and his reaction was always the same: He'd hold his hands up in front of him as if he was physically pushing back the sad news. And he'd make a hissing sound, sort of like the one a person makes when something painful is happening to him. Removing surgical staples comes to mind. Or losing a toenail.
The message was clear: "Don't tell me about that. I don't want to know." It's not that he wasn't compassionate; to the contrary, he could be, especially when the bad news involved children or dogs. But if he refused to listen to the information, he didn't have to process the sadness of it. So he chose to whistle past the graveyard, leaving the bad stuff for others to deal with.
I'm not faulting my dad for this; he suffered some hard losses as a young person, and he no doubt learned to steel his heart against things that could cause him pain. His stoicism seemed to have been a family trait, and maybe even an ethnic one; southern Italians in my grandparents' day weren't destined to have great lives. They were peasants -- farmers, mostly -- and when their land dried up, they came to this country only to be shuttled into slums and treated with the utmost disrespect. Their children, my dad's generation, saw and reacted to that.
Real life was hard enough; why not plug your ears and avoid more bad news?
Clearly, I didn't know Joe Paterno. But I surmise that there may have been some similarities between my dad and the coach -- ones that could have caused Paterno to turn a deaf ear to something he truly did not want to face. If my dad had been in Paterno's shoes, I can imagine Dad saying, by way of explanation:
"They told me Sandusky had messed with a boy. I didn't want the details. I turned around and reported it to my supervisor, and I was told it would be taken care of. What was I supposed to do -- not trust my boss?"
And you can bet that until the whole sordid mess became public, Paterno had planned never to speak of it again -- not because he was trying to conceal anything, but because the whole thing was just so gross and unpleasant and wrong.
That's why the news of Paterno's death makes me especially sad; chances are he died not knowing how he should have handled the situation. He admitted when the scandal first broke that he "should have done more." But I wonder, given another chance, how he would have altered his reaction and the steps he chose, or didn't choose, to take.
In his day, horrible things were swept under the carpet. Thank goodness we no longer live in those times. But chances are Paterno, like my dad, couldn't make himself discuss something that, as Charlie Lavia often said, "should have been kept in the family." Clearly, the Penn State football family was dysfunctional as all hell, and how tragic that it took a parade of innocent young boys to shine a bright light on the mess.
But how tragic, also, that the horrors of Sandusky's actions impacted the legacy of someone who was, by all accounts, a fine human being who did a whole lot of good for a whole lot of people. The real victims in this case are the boys, and the real villain is, of course, Sandusky. But that doesn't make the requiem for Paterno himself any less poignant, and any less heartbreaking.