Remembering Joe Paterno

In late 2011 the often divided people of America came together for one short moment…and it was to harass an elderly, dying man.

Joe Paterno was found guilty before he could defend himself.

That Jerry Sandusky was guilty of the sex abuse charges against him was clear from the beginning of the investigation. Immediately, though, guilt was also assumed unfairly onto Penn State, Joe Paterno, and every person remotely involved. If you held any other opinion you were defending child abusers and had no sympathy for the victims.

This was a sad example of American thought crime. Instead of waiting for all the facts to come out, instead of thinking critically, instead of sifting through the facts and figuring out exactly who was to blame and to what capacity, most people simply threw out all notions of real, serious thought in exchange for an unthinking mob mentality. Amidst all the venom against Penn State, and especially Joe Paterno, nobody asked what we actually knew about what Paterno did or didn’t do. There were only stories, reports, and assumptions. That people had such venomous, hateful, spiteful feelings of Paterno despite this is disgusting.

It has come out that Paterno knew about some allegations against Sandusky. Yet it is still unclear exactly what he was told and exactly what he knew. The reports of what he was told range from mere horseplay to accusations of anal sex. It is easy for people to jump to conclusions but the fact is that we have no idea what Paterno was actually told.

It is easy for somebody on the outside to think that he should have gone to the police no matter what he was told. Yet if he was told it wasn’t serious, as he and other Penn State people have claimed, why would he? He told people he worked with for decades who he had the utmost faith and trust in, people who I’m sure he trusted would take the information he had, investigate it fully, and make sure that the allegations weren’t true. For all we know he was then told that there was nothing to the allegations and that the matter had been resolved.

If you were in his position what would have you done then? It’s easy enough to say “I would have gone to the authorities right away for sure.” But remember that we don’t know what he was told about the allegations or the fallout of them. Because of this it is impossible to judge him or what he had the “moral obligation” to do.

The public reaction to the story displays the hypocrisy of contemporary America. Suddenly our ethically depleted country that can’t keep a marriage together or raise successful children,that watches television shows and movies and plays video games that are all completely void of morals – that indeed praise vices – has a moral compass? Are you kidding me? Hypocrisy at its finest.

The second reason why the public reaction has been so sad and embarrassing is that it’s fueled, too largely I’m afraid, by the self-righteousness of the self-loathing masses. People don’t like themselves and are so bitter that they have no stature that they have to tear down anybody who has a good reputation (such as Paterno) or any institution that is elevated or legendary (such as Penn State) at any chance they can get. They put their noses in the air and feel, if only for a fleeting moment, that they’re better than somebody, that somebody who used to have the attention and respect that they so badly crave has gotten that taken away from them.

The people rejoice whenever anybody or anything is brought down to their level. Their lives lack meaning to the extent that they have to latch on to the failures of people who have the social stature they wish they had so they can, at least for a few moments, forget how much it hurts them that their lives are so insignificant. At least this seems to be far more widespread than most people would like to admit.

Regardless of all this Joe Paterno was taken to the gallows by a large portion of America with no real evidence and without any real knowledge of the story behind what he was told and how he handled it. It may come out that he knew more than he was letting on and was even more of a disgrace than he’s being painted as being already. The point is that in bloodthirsty America you’re always guilty until proven innocent. And if by chance you’re proven innocent a large chunk of America will be sorely disappointed that they can’t use your failure to build up their sad lives.

Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His online magazine Ramblin’ On  is a weekly survey of society, music, sports, culture, philosophy, literature, Christianity, religion, history, psychology, and more. You can reach him at