Friday, November 11, 2011
Ecce Homo: Why Penn State had to fire a guy who didn't deserve to be fired
One thing is clear: none of the people who voted for his dismissal has done so much for so many as he has. He was fired by people who will never be as great as he is.
If the facts of the case were clearer his firing wouldn't seem so problematic. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and it's not clear at all that Paterno knew all the things he would have had to know in order to bear the level of culpability the board would have to attribute to him to justify the way they treated him in the end. In fact, when whoever it was from the Penn State board made the call to tell him he was dismissed, he asked what the problem was with serving the remaining several games of the season (He had just announced his retirement at the fast-approaching end of the season). They couldn't tell him why.
But they didn't need to have any reasons to fire Joe Paterno. That was not what this was about.
My theory is that the board felt like they could not afford to do the appropriate thing here, which was to let Joe go at the end of the season, which is almost here. It had to be seen as forcing him out. There was no need for him to go in the ignominious way in which they forced him to go. It wasn't something he deserved. But it was something board needed to do in order to look like it had done something when it was too late to do anything that really mattered.
If you don't want someone else to shoot you, one of the ways to prevent it is to shoot yourself. And that's what Penn State's board decided the university must do. Committing institutional suicide was the safest thing for it to do.
Part of the measure of a man is how he reacts when people treat him as if he were less than he was. Paterno's reaction to his dismissal was to say simply that he prayed for the victims. Even after he was treated as less than he was, he still acted as if it wasn't about him.
And yet it was.
In the end, the problem was that it was Penn State as an institution that was sullied in the whole episode. And Joe Paterno had done so much for the university for so many years that he was the embodiment of the university. It wouldn't have mattered if he had never known about any of it. He would still have had to be fired.
The institution needed a scapegoat to bear the guilt. They found one: the guy who is Penn State. It was their way of washing their hands of the whole affair. John Surma, vice chairman of the board of trustees, was the one who made the announcement. It was quick and clean. They had no Barrabas; all they had was Joe.
I wonder if anyone thought to ask Surma's wife if she had had any strange dreams the night before.
Joe Paterno was not fired for what he did: he was fired for who he was. He was a great man. And it was his own greatness that made him the guy who had to be gotten rid of.
Now the institution can go on. But it isn't Penn State anymore. It's just another college.