Death in the Valley

by Casey Barrett

Paterno Dies, Predator Coaches Still Out There…

10 weeks, that’s all it took. Just 74 days after being fired in shame for his failure to protect victims of child rape. The official cause of death was lung cancer, of course. Plenty have said it was really due to a broken heart. No patience for that sentimentality under the circumstances. But here’s a fact for you: If Jerry Sandusky’s darkest secrets were still under cover in Happy Valley, Joe Paterno would still be alive today. Anyone disagree?

Well, one guy apparently…

His name is Joe Posnanski, and he’s recently been named the 2011 National Sportswriter of the Year. One of SI’s top A-list writers, with a fantastic blog on the side, Posnanski is a great read. He is also in the midst of embarrassing himself badly. See, last fall, well before the Sandusky storm hit, Posnanski was living in State College, writing the definitive biography on Paterno. He was in thrall with the guy, given full access and deep into an extended 300+ page puff piece about the coaching legend. In the days after the horror unfolded, he was quick to defend Paterno, claiming a rush to judgment by the university.

Earlier today, he penned a eulogy of sorts. Despite all that’s emerged about JoePa’s epic failures – ones that helped demolish the lives of children who were raped by one of the coach’s oldest friends and associates – Posnanski is still entrenched on Team Paterno. “He did not die a bitter or broken man,” writes Posnanski. How did he “know” this? Here’s how: “I know this because I spent time with Paterno in his hospital room during the last weeks of his life.”

Correction: This is exactly why you don’t “know.” Because, from Joe to Joe, you were being manipulated. JoePa was in control until the very end. As he always has been. It worked so splendidly because Paterno believed it every bit as much as Posnanski wanted to. He was guiding the final word still to be written about his storied life. And the writer was lapping it up.

Every leader who has ever held power for any length of time learns the necessity of controlling the message. Learns how to manipulate those under his command – for good and for ill. That’s what great coaches do. They create their own realities, their own lofty spotless universes, and then they convince others to come along with them. To that promised land where everything goes just right, exactly to plan, where they will be lifted on shoulders and statues will be erected in their honor, in worship to their vision and leadership.

One can see how a few decades of this might cloud the old judgment a bit…

Which is why Paterno’s death crosses the sports divide and winds up on a site devoted to swimming yet again.

For most, his death will probably mark the point when we can start driving the speed limit again. After the requisite gawking at the grisly accident on the side of the road, there comes the moment when it starts to fade in the rear view. The passengers will all remain respectfully silent for a bit; gradually you’ll pick up speed. Soon it will be out of sight, out of mind. After all the outrage, now that Paterno is dead, how many will actually take a close interest in following Sandusky’s trial? How many headlines will the justice not yet served even generate?

Those in the swimming world would be wise to continue to pay attention. Because two weeks ago, it happened again. “It” being another coaching deviant preying on children. In Gainesville, the coach of the Gator Swim Club, Bryan Woodward, was arrested after allegations that he tried to arrange sex with an underage girl. He was charged with using a computer to solicit a child for sex and for traveling to seduce a child into sex acts. Like all the others, Woodward passed every background check before he was hired.

We want these things to go away. We don’t want to think of them, don’t want to even acknowledge that it exists. Especially when you’re a parent with kids in youth sports. But these predators are still out there. Hard words to write, harder still to face, but there it is.

Joe Paterno won 409 football games. Changed plenty of lives in the process. Books will be written about him that try to place his whole life in context, not just the sad, dark final days.

Tell that to the kids raped by Sandusky after Joe Paterno failed to protect them.