If one ever needed evidence that our culture has lost its collective minds one only has to turn on the sports news over the last 48 hours. Two things have transpired that reveal the dark underbelly of who we have become as a culture and as a people.
Former world heavyweight champion boxer "Smokin" Joe Frazier died Monday night at the age of 67. Frazier had only recently been diagnosed with liver cancer, dying only about a month following his diagnosis. I remember watching Frazier box in the 60's and 70's. I was always impressed by his style...a straight forward, never back down approach that endured a great deal of punishment but somehow managed to come out on top. Something about Frazier resonated in me...and I became a fan. I wasn't a fan of boxing as much as I was a fan of Joe Frazier, the way he handled himself; the way he refused to back down; the way he won.
Frazier wasn't perfect, far from it. His greatest struggle was found not in the ring but in his heart in the years after his career had ended. Muhammad Ali waged psychological war against Frazier in the weeks leading up to their first fight. The damage done to Frazier by Ali's words was far greater than the physical punishment that Ali visited upon him. It took yeas for this quiet man of dignity to overcome the hatred that he carried in his heart towards Ali. Frazier won his greatest battle when he overcame that hatred. He accomplished what few persons are able to do...he overcame himself.
I wish I could end this commentary with Joe Frazier, but I can't. On the same day that the death of Frazier broke another man died in a sense. That man is Joe Paterno, longtime coach of the Penn State football team. Paterno has long been regarded as one of the finest men in all of sports. He was placed on a pedestal, an example of what was right in sports.
But Paterno's legacy, if not dead, is surely mortally wounded. The story that broke over the weekend involved the actions of Paterno's long time assistant coach. The man is alleged to have sexually assaulted boys as young as 10 years old over an extended period of time. The most damning of the allegations, as they pertain to Paterno, is that Paterno had knowledge of the assistant's behavior and reported it to his superiors...and then did nothing. It is a coward's excuse to say that Paterno fulfilled his obligation when he informed his superiors. His obligation was not to the school or to his assistant: his obligation was to protect the 10 year old boy who was the victim of the assault. Paterno has kept his silence in the years since, but now the cat is out of the bag.
Paterno may never face any legal accountability for his actions, but his legacy is tarnished forever. Paterno was respected as a man of character, integrity, and a leader of men. But a leader of men doesn't sit silently and allow the kind of behavior that Paterno was aware of. Even if this was the only incident that Paterno knew about it was enough. He should have pursued the incident and ensured that this man would never have the opportunity to abuse a young boy again.
Joe Frazier and Joe Paterno.....one overcame a heart filled with hate and created a legacy that will live beyond his years. The other destroyed his legacy for reasons known only to him and will find out that the price was far too great, whatever it was.