The Deaths of "Smokin' Joe" and Joe Pa's Reputation
Joe Frazier and Joe Paterno. Two legends, two icons linked by their connections to their adoptive state of Pennsylvania. Two giants of their respective sports. One died yesterday at the age of 67, losing his battle to liver cancer. The other should voluntarily leave his position today, resigning under the cloud of a scandal that threatens his football program and legacy.
Smokin’ Joe Frazier was once the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and was the first man ever to defeat Muhammad Ali in the ring. Born in South Carolina, he moved to Philadelphia and, before Rocky Balboa ever graced the silver screen, was the name and face most associated with Philadelphia boxing. He was champion during the 1970’s, what must be considered the “golden age” of boxing during our lifetimes, an era where the heavyweight division boasted at least four bona-fide superstars: Frazier, Ali, George Foreman, and Ken Norton. While Ali was the center of the boxing universe, the other three all engaged in memorable battles with the self-proclaimed “Greatest”; none more so than Frazier. The men battled in two of the greatest fights in boxing history: 1971’s “Fight of the Century”, where Frazier beat Ali in Madison Square Garden, and the “Thrilla in Manila,” where Ali beat Frazier in 14 rounds in the Philippines.
The second fight was marred by Ali’s pre-fight taunting of Frazier, calling him a “gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom”. Though Frazier was articulate and intelligent, the labeling of him as a “gorilla” by the vocal, charismatic Ali led many to believe to the contrary. Frazier (and Foreman, who later gained fame as a Preacher and television salesman) became foils to Ali’s intelligent persona. Not until after his retirement did the affable Frazier emerge. He re-emerged from boxing retirement as a lounge singer, appearing in venues and strutting his moves through a memorable Miller Lite commercial. He was an ambassador for the sport, along with Foreman, especially important at a time when Ali’s Parkinson’s Disease prevented him from being a voice for the sport’s magical era.
Joe Frazier died yesterday at the age of 67. He leaves behind a legacy befitting a heavyweight champion, memories of his defeat of Ali in 1971, of the brutal battle between the two in Manila, and of other memorable battles with George Foreman and others. At a time when boxing has been searching for men like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a time when 49-year old Evander Holyfield has indicated that he wants to return to the ring and face the Klitshko brothers, who apparently hold the current boxing belts (a fact known to at least 10 people, perhaps), the passing of Joe Frazier reverberates even stronger. Farewell, Smokin’ Joe. You were one of the greatest.
Joe Paterno has been the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions for half a century. “Joe Pa” is the face of the football program, and numerous Heisman Trophy winners and future NFL players have blossomed under his tutelage at what has come to be known as “Linebacker U.”
Originally from Brooklyn, he has made his professional home at Penn State since 1966. He is 84 years old now, and the whispers of his needing to retire have never grown into shouts despite his advanced age.
The Penn State program has been rocked by allegations of deviant sexual conduct by one of its former assistant coaches, conduct which involved young boys and which took place in the Penn State locker room, even after that coach had retired. The Coach in question, Jerry Sandusky, joined the Penn State staff in 1969, and remained as on the staff for 30 years with Paterno, retiring in 1999 at the age of 55. From 1994 through 2008 or 2009, it is alleged, Sandusky alleged in improper sexual encounters with young boys, often at the Penn State facilities. Several of these encounters took place while he was still actively employed with the University. Others took place after he retired, but while he still enjoyed access to the football team’s facilities, including its locker room and showers.
Joe Paterno was advised of these activities as early as 2002. It is difficult to believe that he was not aware of any deviant conduct prior to that time, as there had been a police investigation into allegations involving Sandusky, in which he admitted improperly showering naked with and hugging a young boy, as early as 1998. One would think that the head coach of the program would have been notified of such conduct being perpetrated by one of his assistants, especially when University police were involved in the investigation.
But even taking Joe Pa at his word, that he did not hear of Sandusky’s conduct until 2002, is not enough to absolve him of blame in this scenario. The newspaper reports speak of Sandusky having sodomized a young boy in the locker room’s showers, an event which was witnessed by a graduate student/assistant coach. But these reports don’t really show the magnitude of the event. This is what happened, in more graphic and appropriate terms:
On March 1, 2002, a graduate student/assistant coach for the Penn State Nittany Lions, walked into the team’s locker room. He looked into the shower, where he saw former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, then in his late 40’s, shoving his dick up a 10-year old boy’s ass. Sandusky had the boy pinned against the wall of the shower. And this 20-something-year old did nothing to stop it. He did not try to help the boy. He did not ask Sandusky to stop. He simply turned and walked away. The next day, he told the most powerful man in Happy Valley, Joe Paterno, what he had seen.
And Joe Paterno, who is now possesses the record for most wins ever by a Division I football coach, simply shrugged his shoulders, the giant shoulders upon which the fortunes of the entire Penn State football program rested, and decided that he would take no affirmative action against Sandusky for his actions. The ripped anus of a ten-year old, apparently, was not important enough to besmirch the public reputation of his beloved football program. He took his hands, the hands that had molded students at Penn State since 1966 into football players, the hands who had created Heisman Trophy winners, first round draft picks, and NFL All-Pros, and washed them of any responsibility in the matter. He simply called the Athletic Director the next day and went back to drawing x’s and o’s on the chalkboard in preparation for next fall’s football season. There is no indication that he ever followed up with anyone, including the Athletic Director, to see if the boy was OK, whatever his name was, or whether any action had been taken with respect to Sandusky.
This followed up a prior situation, in 2000, when a janitor saw Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy estimated to be between 11 and 13 years of age in those same showers. The janitor told several people what he had seen, including his supervisor, but never filed a formal report. It is difficult to fathom, however, that the powers that be in the football program never heard about the incident.
Paterno essentially turned a blind eye to the situation. Even through the coke-bottle sized lenses in his glasses, however, he should have seen that he was the proper person to take action against Sandusky, at least with respect to the 2002 incident. His former assistant had access to the site at his discretion. This was going on under his bulbous nose. And anyone who thinks that the Athletic Director wields more power at Penn State than Joe Paterno has never followed Penn State football. Joe Paterno is Penn State. At least until this morning, that is.
Today there will be a press conference addressing the situation. There have been resignations at Penn State, and indictments handed down against Sandusky and those who helped him to cover up his actions, including the school’s Athletic Director. Joe Paterno has not been made part of the indictment, nor does anyone expect that he will be. Nor has the University seen fit to fire Joe Paterno, presumably because he has not been criminally implicated.
But there is a difference between legal obligation and moral obligation. Joe Paterno had a moral obligation to step in and stop Jerry Sandusky from abusing young boys. Instead, he passed off any possible obligation to the AD, and never did any follow-up whatsoever as to what may or may not have been done to stop Sandusky or to comfort the poor boy who was left in the shower to suffer additional indignities being inflicted upon him by Sandusky. At a time when the NCAA has tried to clean up its act, a time when former coach Jim Tressel is no longer patrolling the sidelines at Ohio State because he looked the other way when players of his were selling their uniforms for profit, it is inconceivable that Joe Paterno, legend or not, will be permitted to coach the Nittany Lions this weekend.
A few days ago, one of my favorite writers, Jonathan Wolfman, posted a blog about a Florida man who was sentenced to life in prison for possessing child pornography on his computer. Many of my fellow writers agreed with that sentence, presumably based on the argument that possession of such pictures would lead to molestation. The Penn State locker room showers became a site for such molestation, as evidenced by the allegations and investigations detailing such activities from 1994 through 2008. At least eight boys were involved, although as is so often the case in circumstances like this, there are likely more who will come forward. And Joe Paterno, coaching icon, stood by and allowed and enabled one of his own, one of his assistant coaches, to engage in that very form of child molestation. Shouldn’t he be held, at least in part, accountable? Was there no moral pang of guilt which should have caused Paterno to put a stop to Sandusky’s actions? And, in a way, isn’t his permitting the molestation to continue a worse offense than a guy in Florida simply looking at pictures on a computer?
Joe Paterno should resign his position as head football coach at Penn State today. Nobody expects him to do so, and nobody expects the University to take any action against him, especially since he is in his mid-80’s and this is the last year of his contract. These expectations, however, are as wrong as the actions which should cause such actions to be taken. To absolve Paterno of any responsibility in this matter, despite his advanced age and cultural icon-like status, is tantamount to raping those young boys in the shower all over again. And Paterno’s reputation is sullied. No amount of mea culpas can save that now. The water washing down the shower drains mixed with the tears of the young boys whose innocence was robbed from them, but did not absolve the coach of his obligations or his patent failure to step in and do what was right, by any moral compass.
Farewell, Joe Pa’s reputation. You were one of the best. Until now.