By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
(CBS) Joe Paterno’s life ended today, but it began to end long ago.
It began to end when he decided to let Penn State football be a vehicle for serial child-molestation at the hands of his trusted assistant. It continued to end in the infinite moments thereafter, every time he failed to speak up, failed to act, failed to protect, and failed to care.
Nothing in his life was more important than his grim, cowardly silence. There is no counterbalancing the moral ledger, or any mitigation by anything related to football. For years, he looked the other way while children were being assaulted, and his program was being used to enable the crimes.
No number of victories stacks up against what these boys and their families lost. Not even 409.
It’s repugnant to believe that this was one small oversight by a kind, old man, blemishing an otherwise honorable legacy. Paterno’s inaction was concurrent with everything else. This was not a singular moment of poor judgment – it was boundless, constant, and ongoing. Any joyous cheers from fans echoed over the grave, dark stillness in Happy Valley.
He may have known when Jerry Sandusky was first hired. Most believe he knew when Sandusky was investigated, confronted and forced to retire in 1998. We know from his own sworn testimony, though, that Paterno knew in 2002.
Read about the victims after that date.
Read the sick details of what these men say Sandusky did to them in those years. Read about the on-campus swimming pool, the hotel sauna, the trips to bowl games, the basement dungeon where they screamed for help while being raped.
The plain reasons given for Paterno’s firing also serve to explain why his death needn’t be mourned.
“Every adult has a responsibility for every other child in our community,” Penn State trustee Kenneth C. Frazier told the New York Times last week. “And that we have a responsibility not to do the minimum, the legal requirement. We have a responsibility for ensuring that we can take every effort that’s within our power not only to prevent further harm to that child, but to every other child.”
Entrusted with that responsibility to a greater extent than others considering his vast, unprecedented power, Paterno turned his back. Rather than protect children, he knowingly endangered them.
And he should rest in no more peace than that of those boys, whose lives were ruined by a monster.
Here’s another quote about doing the right thing in difficult times: “Being the most popular kid won’t mean much if you are in trouble with the law or have flunked out of school. So if your friends are making poor choices, stand up to your friends and stand out from the crowd. Don’t give up your winning future for short-term popularity.”
That’s Joe Paterno, from the back of a 1990 trading card distributed by The Second Mile, Sandusky’s “charity” that he exploited as a victim-cultivation mechanism.
So there will be tears, now. Many will come from under-informed students, willfully-ignorant alums, and Pennsylvania residents raised to worship a fraud. There will be grandiose, sanitized eulogies from every media corner. A Disney Requiem.
I cried last week, when I read the words of Penn State trustee Stephanie Nolan Deviney, who described to the New York Times her thoughts as she left home for the meeting at State College to determine Paterno’s future.
She went to the bedroom of her seven-year old son to kiss him goodbye.
“I thought of all the mothers of all those boys in the presentment,” she said. “And I thought about what they must feel when they kiss their sons good night.”
I cried again when I read that passage on the air. I am crying right now as I type. I am sad, and still indescribably angry over what Penn State football helped happen.
I am crying for the right reasons.