I’ve been thinking of Cardinal Wolsey these days in relation to the firing of Joe Paterno as Penn State’s football coach. People continue to ask why he was fired and the board of trustees has yet to answer that question. Of course, the question becomes more prominent because as the timeline in the Sandusky sex abuse scandal is laid out, Paterno did the right thing and should be honored, not fired. Or so it seems until we get more information.
The Joe Paterno I know was no Cardinal Wolsey, who apparently while serving Henry VIII was quite the political animal and served Henry rather than the church only to have Henry turn on him late in his life. Wolsey died while enroute to London where he probably would have been executed.
I read a biography of Wolsey back in the 1960s and was struck by the title: Naked to Mine Enemies. I’m not sure Wolsey ever used the line but I do know that Shakespeare did in his play Henry VIII.
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.
As I pondered the firing of Joe Paterno and the unstated reason(s) behind it, the phrase came back to me. I finally realized that there is no unstated reason for the firing, that Paterno had over the years accumulated enough enemies that in a moment of vulnerability his enemies prevailed over his supporters. Look at all of the negative stories about Joe’s past that have been published since he was fired. Few would dare to write such stories while he was the coach.
Why was Joe fired? He stayed too long. While most people, including those in Old Main and on the board of trustees, retire at 65, Paterno kept on coaching and had enough support to get away with it. Even when he was asked to step down, he had enough power to thumb his nose at the president of Penn State and to continue coaching. Even at the conclusion of the last season, his legacy intact as the winningest Division I coach in college football, he refused to step down. He wanted one more season and seemed to suggest that there would be more after that.
Leaving aside the current sex abuse scandal, I always thought that Joe had the right values for a football coach. Certainly, he was not perfect, but his stated values were worth emulating. I long said that Joe had a right to retire on his own terms—but at the same time he should have retired a while back.
By insisting on continuing to coach, Paterno left himself naked to his enemies. In the end his vulnerability was greater than his legacy. Like it or not, he was fired.
I am a freelance writer and photographer and retired journalism professor. In my first newspaper job more than 50 years ago I wrote a sports column titled The Spectator (Caslon typeface). I thought I'd resurrect the title, which was and is in honor of Addison and Steele.
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