Hypocritical protectionism is dangerous.
I'm not surprised that my column on Joe Paterno elicited such a strong reaction. I anticipated that, since the story is centered on his knowledge of and reaction to the alleged sexual abuse of children.
But I didn't anticipate that the majority of the nearly 1,400 emails I received in response to it would express strong support and sympathy for Paterno.
I see an irony here in that a lot of the people who responded in support of Paterno sound exactly like those who supported Michael Vick, both before and after he was convicted of dog fighting charges.
In 2007, I wrote a column chastising Vick and encouraging the multitudes of young black men who idolized him to not make him into a martyr.
I received nearly 2,000 emails in response to that column. Most of those who responded were angry at the media for demonizing Vick. Had Vick been white, many of them claimed, he would have never faced that level of outrage. They called the criticisms of Vick a witch hunt. Some still believe he isn't being treated fairly by the media, which is part of what prompted ESPN The Magazine's recent cover story, "What if Michael Vick were white?"
Now let's fast forward to my email inbox over the last two weeks, in the wake of the Paterno column.
"These are all allegations," Charles from Philadelphia wrote. "Remember innocent until proven guilty. The media and ESPN analysts should be ashamed and really look at facts before judging a man that has inspired and did more for a university than anyone."
"If we were all judged on one poor decision, wouldn't we all go to hell?" Nick from Charleston, S.C., asked.
Vick has always enjoyed strong support among African-Americans, and while I don't know the races of those who emailed me to support Paterno, I feel comfortable in assuming that many of them are white.
Of course, there are plenty of white people who do not support Paterno and agree with the university's decision to fire him immediately rather than let him finish the season. Just as there were plenty of black people who condemned Vick when he was arrested and convicted, and some who, even now, don't believe Vick deserved a second chance. (For the record, I agreed with Vick's conviction but thought he earned a second chance in the NFL.)
But how we characterize someone's bad behavior is sometimes greatly influenced by whether we can relate to him or her. It might be because the accused person is from our hometown. It could be that we share similar backgrounds.
Another factor is race, for example.
Some of the black people condemning Paterno likely are the same ones who supported Michael Jackson when he -- like Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's former assistant -- was accused of molesting young boys. Some of the white people supporting Paterno likely are the same ones who won't forgive Vick and criticized African-Americans when they supported the quarterback.
Paterno's race is irrelevant to me, but I feel compelled to discuss the parallels.
Hypocritical protectionism goes both ways, people.
Now, on to the mailbag
As someone who has no affiliation with Penn State or the Big Ten in any way, I feel that you have been more than unfair to a man who has devoted his entire life to young men. He did not abuse anyone. Nor did he turn a blind eye to the whole thing. While Jerry Sandusky sits at home awaiting trial, you have decided to turn your anger upon Mr. Paterno. It is a shame the manner in which you and most of the media have become high and mighty about what should have been done. You should be ashamed of yourself.
-- Michael Ervin, Fresno, Calif.
A single decision -- or, in this case, a pattern of inaction -- doesn't negate a lifetime of good deeds. But this scandal does make me question the motives behind Paterno's legendary goodwill. I'm not accusing Paterno of being disingenuous, but I wonder if, at some point, living up to his saintly image became more important than his actual integrity. And I'm not the only who thinks that.
Criticizing Paterno was fair. He's the face of Penn State. Paterno didn't answer to anyone there. Of course Sandusky, if convicted, is the real monster. But that doesn't absolve Paterno. He testified under oath to a grand jury that a "graduate assistant [Mike McQueary] had seen Jerry Sandusky in the Lasch Building showers fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy."
For those who claim Paterno didn't have enough information to act, how can you not consider that enough of a red flag?
Paterno was morally obligated to do more than just inform former athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz, who then oversaw campus police. Paterno's behavior seems even stranger considering how much access Sandusky had to the program and the university after Paterno was made aware that something inappropriate occurred.
Put it this way: If Sandusky had been accused of committing infractions that jeopardized Penn State's eligibility or ability to compete, do you think Paterno would have so willingly distanced himself from the situation?
As a former victim of sexual abuse, I am appalled that there is any question about Paterno and everyone else involved even staying through the season. I haven't always agreed with your viewpoints in the sporting world, but this sickening incident goes beyond the world of sports. I am saddened, disgusted and outraged after hearing how both McQueary and Paterno chose to handle this situation. If you drove down the street and saw an adult man punching a 10-year-old boy in the face, wouldn't you pull over, notify the police and do everything in your power to protect him?
-- Curtis, Salt Lake City
I can't disagree with any of that, but one of the more troubling elements to Mike McQueary's reaction to stumbling upon an alleged rape of a young boy is that his response is hardly an anomaly. I received several emails from social workers and teachers who told me that while the circumstances in how McQueary discovered the alleged sexual assault are unique, his response isn't that unusual. Sexual abuse is frequently unreported.
According to this story about the latest statistics, one in six boys will be sexually assaulted but fewer than 10 percent of victims tell anyone what has happened. The numbers aren't quite clear in terms of how many adults in McQueary's position choose not to report sexual assaults, but most literature suggests that adults like McQueary often decide not to get involved.
I really liked your column on Tim Tebow. As a Christian minister, I appreciate your respect for religion. While I agree that mocking Tim Tebow's faith was in bad taste, I think the point that is not being made is how offensive Tebow's gesture can be. I get thanking God after every TD even though I fundamentally disagree with it. But the prayers on the field are excessive and, I believe, contrary to scripture. I think it's nice that he is a faithful person but such public piety, no matter how well-intentioned, is someone trying to show how faithful they are.
-- Jacob Simpson, Bronxville, N.Y.
A number of readers, Christian and non-Christian, emailed me sharing similar concerns. I've covered Tebow intermittently since he was a senior in high school. I've attended church with him and his family. I don't believe Tebow expresses his faith publically to be a show-off. He does it because his faith is the core of who he is. This isn't to say that if Tebow were unsuccessful, he'd be less of a believer. It's just that his faith is that important to him.
When players from both teams pray on the field following games, is that considered in poor taste, too? I find it to be comforting. Football is a violent game and players are more emotional because a single play could ruin their careers, perhaps even their lives. Most religious players know that God doesn't care whether they score a touchdown. They're just thankful God put them in that position in the first place.
I think you're being a little too sensitive with this racial issue. Stevie Williams is obviously still angry at Tiger, but throwing the adjective "black" into his verbal attack is no different than saying fat, short, tall, white, brown, gay, etc. Was it wrong? No doubt. But can we finally get over the race issue? Tiger is black. It's a fact. Calling him black doesn't make someone racist.
-- Vince Hicks, Royal Oak, Mich.
If Williams really wanted to be accurate, wouldn't he have said he wanted to shove Adam Scott's WGC Bridgestone Invitational win up Tiger's Caublanasian you-know-what?
I'm kidding, of course.
I don't object to Williams being angry. He has that right. But it didn't appear Williams used "black" as a descriptive turn, but rather to add punctuation -- or rather, more venom -- to an insult. Williams wanted to be derogatory. And he succeeded.
I hate to end a fairly serious mailbag on even more of a downer, but I can't finish without paying tribute to rapper Heavy D, who died last week at age 44 of respiratory problems.
Long before Biggie Smalls -- also known as the Notorious BIG -- Heavy gave big dudes swagger. He was a total entertainer and helped drive hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s.
Sadly, Heavy D gave his last performance at the BET Hip Hop awards in October. Not surprisingly, it was spectacular.
I got nothing but love for you, Heavy D.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.