Joseph Vincent Paterno is gone. Dead. The official cause reads “cancer.” My take: a shattered world of memories and a broken heart were major contributors.

The Penn State sex scandal that ended his illustrious career was a terrible thing, not justifiable by anyone in any way. Careers of other Penn State employees have been quickly ended. As well they should have been. If found guilty, my hope is that Jerry Sandusky – longtime trusted Paterno assistant – never sees the sun without steel bars between him and it.

I won’t try to let Paterno off the moral hook. But there’s a vast difference between his situation and that of the principle offender. In Sandusky’s case, the offense is what he is alleged to have done. In Paterno’s, it’s what he is alleged not to have done. Twice. If both commission and omission are eventually proven, so be it. What Sandusky allegedly did will make him a footnote to sorry history. What Paterno allegedly didn’t do – in 2002 and 2011 – will be footnotes to his entire life’s meaning. And should not be.

With his death, Paterno can’t suffer any longer. But as we inter his bones, I have a theory about what he allegedly didn’t do. Why he didn’t do it.

“JoePa” came to Penn State as an assistant football coast in 1950: 62 years ago. The Penn State football program and the Penn State campus way of “reality” became his entire life. After graduating from Brown University a year earlier, he simply changed campuses but lived in an environment dominated by the shelter from reality that marks institutional and academic settings. The only life he knew as both a young man and an old war horse. And all the years between.

Imagine the personal conditioning of going to work in the same job at the same place for 62 years, living in the same house for more than 40 years. Imagine – if you can – the life-shaping protection of living nearly all your life sheltered from the day-to-day demands and pressures nearly all of us have. A cocoon-like life. Something like spending 62 years in the military. In your personal life, from your early years to your middle years to your last years, you had your place – you had your job – and you had little day-to-day contact with the pressured world the rest of us live in.

Imagine how such an experience would mold you. Would shape your thinking. Would shape your sense of responsibility. Would determine your reactions to a sudden, violent, outside reality completely foreign to everything you’d ever known.

Evidence thus far is that, when told by an assistant of Sandusky’s alleged behavior, Paterno contacted the Penn State Athletic Director – his immediate superior and boss – and told him what second-hand information he had, labeling it a “problem” within his football program that needed administrative attention.

Paterno did what he was supposed to do in his isolated, institutional environment. Information coming from beneath his level of responsibility was quickly passed on to the person he – Paterno – was responsible to above: the athletic director. Information coming up the chain was passed to the next person up that chain. Isn’t that what you’d do in your job? We all know the drill. Paterno reacted properly in his. As far as he went.

The “crime” which brought his illustrious career – and maybe his life – to an end is that he did not do more. He did not contact the Penn State president. He did not contact campus police or off-campus police. He apparently told no one about the second-hand information he had received, relying on the “system” of his “campus reality” and the very different lifelong academic environment to respond as he believed they would. After all, the people “up-the-chain“ also ran the campus police. He did what he was supposed to do. He did no more.

And that’s why I’m able to cut “JoePa” some slack. While we all may believe he should have “done more,” we are not the products of the same environmental conditioning Paterno was. We don’t look at life as someone sheltered from a lot of its realities. Still, as I opined at the outset, Paterno should not be let off the hook entirely.

But consider: what about the thousands of young men whose lives he helped shape for 62 years? What about 37 major bowl appearances in his 46 years as head coach – the only FBS coach to reach 400 victories? The donation of more than $4 million to Penn State programs and the millions more he and his wife gave to build a world-class academic library on campus? What about his rejection of NFL and other career opportunities to stay right there on campus, turning out winning teams and those thousands of young men, most of whom benefitted from the life-changing affiliation with “JoePa” and his principled approach to athletics?

While we may feel he should have done more in the Sandusky scandal on two ocasions, I find some mitigation for “JoePa.” The ethical and moral teachings he blended with the Penn State football programs of 62 years have paid some enormous dividends in thousands of lives. I wish him a good eternal rest.

And Peace.

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