Aug. 1 2012 10:21 AM

Doing the right thing was too far down on the priority list for the late Penn State coach

Aaryn Belfer

We human beings are crazy, aren't we? I'm convinced that most of us are doing the best we can to be good people, to do the right thing and to evolve and grow and all that. But every one of us does so with our own special brand of cray-cray, whether that means we have to lick a light switch three times before leaving the house or that (ahem) we can't begin a novel until we've first noted the total page count and last word of it.

This is harmless and possibly endearing weirdo stuff that doesn't much harm the weirdo or—more importantly—any other weirdoes, like those who might be minding their own weirdo business while digging into a bin of popcorn with real butter flavoring at a midnight showing of a long-awaited movie.

Now that's a devastating kind of crazy, the kind unleashed by America's latest mass murderer who's perpetuated another cycle of predictable and useless headlines. Why did it happen? How'd we miss the signs? Where was God? Puh-leese. Look, since we all know there will be no societal changes, let's skip the formalities and respectfully ask anyone aspiring to murder other folks to please off themselves first and then go on their rampages.

To be sure, that orange-haired kid is one troubled whack-job whose mental-health issues are probably well delineated in the DSM IV. But I'm not talking about the devastating kind of crazy. I'm talking about an equally perplexing though arguably less overt kind of crazy, the know-it-when-you-see-it milder kind—the kind that makes you stop to assess your current level of spine tingle. It isn't a that's-why-I-fell-in-love-with-him nutty, but neither is it machine-gun-a-bunch-of-innocents nutballs. It's between these extremes, somewhere in the vicinity of Michelle Bachmann's self-delusional modern-day McCarthyism. I call it the let's-take-family-photos-with-the-Joe-Paterno-statue madness.

And, reader, this is madness. Did you happen to catch the slideshow over at last week?

In the days and hours before a forklift drove away with the 7-foot-tall, 900-pound bronze statue of the once-revered, now-disgraced JoePa, as he was affectionately called, families gathered for a last photo op with the statue of a man who undid everything he stood for the very moment he decided not to take the most important stand of all.

The photos are absurd. No. They're chilling. 

In one, three generations of men—grandfather, father, two teenage boys—surround the statue with a giant, framed JoePa montage poster, various sports paraphernalia and an American flag. In another, a group of teen boys all strike the same pose as their hero, an arm raised, one finger in the air, champions all. In yet another, a young couple flanks the statue, the husband holding up like an offering to a god a pink-and-yellow bundle that is their 5-week-old daughter. The couple is beaming.

In still others, children—teens, grade-schoolers and toddlers—huddle and smile. Even a group of Girl Scouts takes a moment in front of the camera, their troop leader mimicking the pose, the smallest child's arms wrapped around JoePa's waist.

People, this is denial crazy. Here's this guy—this hero, this person who so many looked to as an example of goodness—who's now been shown to have known what his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky (vile, disgusting and, yes, devastating crazy), was doing to the boys in his trust. And yet, Paterno, the moral compass of Happy Valley, chose football, money, power, status and glory over doing the right thing. The guy knew and did nothing while children just like those in the photos were molested and raped over more than a decade.

And the JoePa supporters want to, what? Make a family Christmas card out of his effigy? That's like having romantic picnic at Ground Zero in the weeks after 9/11 because you so loved Windows on the World. Look, I'm all for supporting your team, your school, your community. I like fairy tales with happy endings, too. But looking at the gleeful pictures made this parent's spine-tingle go to 11. How this visceral reaction could be so utterly absent in the parents who went in for the candids is difficult to understand.

Or maybe not. Sandusky's crime is so terrifically heinous that it's difficult for me to even think about, let alone discuss or write about. Most media outlets tend to rely on the verbs "assault" and "abuse" when covering the story, because really, who among us wants to face up to child rape?

Joe Paterno didn't want to. Neither did his higher-ups. I can only imagine this betrayal was—to the citizens of Happy Valley and the Penn State community—like losing a religion. Obviously, they idolized a man who represented the very best attributes that all of us weirdoes aspire to. Until he didn't in a super-big, pretty crazy way. As Paterno modeled for all of them, denial is so much easier.

Paterno was probably a decent man trying to be a good person, to do the right thing and to evolve and grow and all that, but at some point, he became a coward who made a very bad decision for a very long time. Instead of excellence, honor and integrity, Paterno revealed a crevasse-sized character flaw that ultimately undermined and negated everything he'd professed to believe in during his lifetime.

This is sad stuff. But not as sad as the undoing of Sandusky's victims, many of whom could likely have avoided their fate if JoePa had taken to heart any of his own motivational quotes. Yeah, you don't take photos with that guy's emblem; that's crazy. You shake your head, take it down and throw it away.

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.


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