Joe Paterno gave The Washington Post his first interview since his storied career as Penn State's football coach turned to ashes in the aftermath of a sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno was unceremoniously ousted after 46 years when school officials decided his lack of action after being informed of at least one incident of abuse was inexcusable. His firing, which prompted hundreds of students to take to the streets in protest, still causes his family distress.
The misguided inaction that surrounds the Penn State scandal has been examined by many, yet Paterno did shed some light on one moment in the Post interview. It was in 2002 when graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno he had seen Sandusky in the Penn State locker room showers with a young boy.
Paterno said McQueary was delicate in his description of what happened in the shower. And Paterno said it was likely just as effective as if McQueary had been explicit, if he had said a man was raping a child.
"I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man," Paterno said.
The quote stands out for its sheer innocence and naïveté. Even if Sandusky isn't alleged to have raped a man, but a young boy, Paterno's words certainly fit with his image. He is known as a 1950s patriarch, a man who strives to be honorable so much so that evil is a foreign concept.
But is it credible?
By 2002, the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal was starting to make headlines. We would have to assume Paterno, a devout Catholic, would have heard the stories of priests who abused altar boys. And regardless of their religious denomination, Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley, who were also told of Sandusky's inappropriate behavior in the shower, likely also had heard of the scandal.
Within a year of McQueary's revelation, stories were being written about the effect of abuse on those Catholic children as they became men who were ashamed of their secrets.
Paterno, Spanier and Curley never watched the evening news and drew a correlation between those unholy acts and the reported "horsing around" between a grown man and a young boy in the Penn State shower?
How could a man like Paterno, fully involved in the Catholic Church, not see the correlation between what two of the most important institutions in his life were covering up? And if that revelation didn't come immediately, as the ensuing months produced some excellent reporting on the Church's damaging silence, how could Paterno and the administration remain blind to the implications of their inaction?
Paterno is from the "Mad Men" generation, when a well-cut suit and lunch-hour scotch were valued as much as keeping scandalous behavior a secret. Homosexuality and pedophilia are not related, but Paterno's quote seems to suggest he cannot fathom the idea of two men together sexually.
But Paterno is more worldly than that. He studied Greek literature at Brown, where he no doubt would have encountered Homer's "Iliad," in which the hero Achilles had both a lover, Briseis, and a male companion, Patroclus.
No less an author than Plato interpreted the relationship between the two Greek men as homosexual. He wrote about homosexuality in his "Symposium," required reading for any student of the classics.
Paterno also dealt with players acting inappropriately at times, as Penn State former vice president of student affairs Vicky Triponey detailed. In 2007, a number of players were involved in an alleged assault at a party. Triponey told USA Today that Paterno wanted to keep the incident in house. She said he wanted to hand out the punishment and discouraged his players from speaking to the Office of Judicial Affairs.
A tradition of silence and secrecy, applied as a blanket.
The reason to bring these things up is to illuminate the difference between what is visible and what people refuse to see. When Paterno says "rape and a man," as though he can't conceive of it, it is only because his eyes were closed.
The idea of pedophilia, of the trauma it inflicts, these were ideas Paterno encountered -- probably at the time that he was told of Sandusky's sexual and inappropriate behavior.
We all have a preferred reality, where we see things shaded by how we want the world to be. But when in a position of authority, as Paterno was, sometimes you have to step outside and see things as they are. A world without rape and a man -- or rape and a woman, or a child -- would be a better place, but it is sadly not the reality.
By failing to distinguish between what he wanted to see and what is real, Paterno failed the boy in the shower.
And all the boys who followed.