As the mourners pay respect to Joe Paterno, it becomes increasingly clear just how badly he was served in his final years.
Paterno had enough left in his final weeks to understand that he was going to be judged as a public figure who did not do enough when warned about the possibility of male rape on his watch.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
That’s what Paterno told Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. The most important person in the state of Pennsylvania lived inside a castle, behind barricades and moats formed in the name of winning a national football championship.
This is what college football is all about – win at all costs, including isolation and ignorance. Take a look at an excellent article, “How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life,” by Laura Pappano, in the New York Times education supplement of Jan. 20. It asks the question, how did it get to be like this?
But Joe Paterno’s legacy should endure. The entire Penn State community accepted Paterno’s public reputation and his millions in donations to the educational and spiritual side of Penn State. But the mob let him down by not allowing even a court jester to speak some truths to him.
How alone he was. This was more than the King Lear paranoia of a coach who will not be shoved into retirement.
In 2004, the president and the athletic director of Penn State shuffled up to Paterno’s house and suggested it was time for him to retire. Paterno gave them the bum’s rush. Of course he did. By that time, it was already too late to create a dialogue between an aging coach and anybody he respected.
He was on his own, living by his wits, against anybody who would challenge him – because in his street-smart Brooklyn way, he knew they had only one thing on their minds, and that was winning more football games than the powerhouses in Ohio and Alabama and Florida. That’s all they cared about. He was there to be No. 1. So he told them to get lost.
In his press conferences in later years, he sounded like any cranky old man shouting at the kids to keep off his lawn. On that November night after his job was taken away from him, he sounded disjointed, telling the students to go home and study but he still did not seem to understand how serious, how ugly, this all was.
His players are now suggesting he died of a broken heart. This is classic football – us against them. We don’t have access to Paterno’s medical history in recent years (when he seemed to be a magnet for players running out of bounds), but he was diagnosed for lung cancer days after being publicly caught up in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Was he well served by his family, or did they all try to preserve his position against the hordes who resented every rare loss? Was he well served by his university, which allowed him to retreat deeper into the castle?
Above all, they wanted Penn State to be No. 1. And in the end, he became the Wizard of Oz, behind the trappings.
I’d rather remember the vital, earthy, skeptical, educated guy with the Brooklyn rasp, who built a good thing in the Nittany Valley – until the masses did him no favors by making him king.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.