There are many dark and terrifying things that can be said about the Penn State sex abuse scandal. In the wake of Joe Paterno's death this weekend, exactly how much needed to be said was the subject of much debate. Paterno was a titanic figure and noted do-gooder. He also remained silent, or least said less than he could have, while allowing an assistant coach and friend to continue preying on the young and vulnerable. Rarely is a moral absolute so confusing; it's even rarer that the natural healing process of time and the cleansing effect of death have to compete for primacy.
On Sunday, as if things with JoePa's legacy weren't disjointed enough already, talking about talking about Penn State became almost as important—and thorny—as the topic at hand. This after (possibly) premature reports of his passing on Saturday brought on a heavy dose of journalistic navel-gazing. Paterno's death provided no closure, where ordinarily it would have; it also threw a monkey wrench of impatience into whatever resolution might have come with a few years of calm. Both absolution and guilt felt they had a claim: the former by fiat, the latter by virtue of still-raw emotions.
ESPN declared, preemptively, that "Joe Paterno’s legacy outweighs scandal". This piece gave Paterno a free pass to ride into the sunset with the scandal reduced to a footnote. The either/or construction allowed for reaction; ESPN admitted to the quandary, but they had no problem offering a way forward. Athletes were even less conflicted. LeBron James eulogized a “great man”, threw in some exclamation points, and included the handles of all his friends he had been with when he met Paterno. I figured at first this was just James being James and failing to recognize that sometimes platitudes can be the opposite of safe brand-building. But Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul tweeted similar sentiments, leading me to wonder if they weren’t all part of a Nike conspiracy (also notable: Swin Cash, whose league prides itself on being family-friendly).
Or maybe it was just that, for athletes, it’s JoePa the legend that stands out most. Twitter doesn’t exactly provide much room for reflection. That could make it the ideal medium for remembering Paterno; a simple, sober RIP would be tonally appropriate. That’s not what we got, though. It was like a secret handshake that said “we think about sports most of the time” or, as Bomani Jones got at after interviewing LaVar Arrington, the ways in which Paterno’s gift to athletes was something the rest of us couldn’t help but undervalue. That didn’t necessarily bring moral clarity to the situation, but it staked out a position all the same.
How is it that athletes, trained by Jordan to never utter a controversial word and for the most part going along with it, would put themselves out there like that? Aren’t there enough people uncomfortable with the situation that they would do best to simply leave it alone? All I can conclude is that, at this point, we’re past the fatuous “role model” debate and have accepted athletes as athletes. Not as people, necessarily, but as folks with a perspective that needs to be acknowledged as having some merit, even if we disagree with it. They aren’t expected to play politician anymore. They don’t need everyone to agree with them on everything, so long as good ol’ social media allows them the cover of informality.