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Mourning Joe Paterno, a flawed hero

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
January 23, 2012 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno watches his team during practice on November 9, 2011, in State College, Pennsylvania.
Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno watches his team during practice on November 9, 2011, in State College, Pennsylvania.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson says Joe Paterno was a renowned coach who gave his life to Penn State
  • Ordinarily, he says, you would fly flags at half staff for such a man
  • Granderson: Paterno's failure to speak out forcefully to stop child sex abuse scars his reputation
  • But Granderson says many other great men have exhibited terrible flaws

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs

Grand Rapids, Michigan (CNN) -- I am sitting here in front of my computer, looking at the headline that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has died, and I honestly don't know how or what I should feel. If he had passed a year ago, it would be a no-brainer. For a World War II soldier who dedicated more than 50 years to one institution and one wife during a time in which examples of both grow rarer by the decade, it seems flags should be flown at half staff.

But then there's Jerry Sandusky.

And then there's Paterno's silence and then ... well with all due respect to the Paterno family, his loved ones and the Penn State community, uninterrupted mourning becomes difficult.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

Now for those reading this column expecting a glowing obituary for a renowned coach who truly deserves one, you may want to click elsewhere as this is not that kind of a piece. And for anyone hoping I rip Paterno to shreds, again you will need to look elsewhere.

'Sandusky scandal part of Paterno legacy'

I am writing for those of us trapped in the middle -- for those who watched the Penn State story unfold without the ability to see the world in black and white.

What do you do when a wonderful man who made a terrible mistake dies?
LZ Granderson

I am genuinely saddened to hear a wife has lost her husband and children have lost their father. But that mourning for the Paternos subconsciously shifts to mourning the innocence of the little boys that could have been saved had Paterno fought to protect them with as much vigilance as he used to protect his good name in the aftermath of the scandal. It's unfair to blame Paterno for what Sandusky is accused of doing, but it's impossible to accept Paterno did anywhere near to all he could by simply alerting two university officials to one incident. Years passed and the coach didn't utter one word about what he knew about Sandusky to the media but he managed to address the media on his front porch within hours of his firing.

If you've ever held a crying child in your arms, it's hard to see Paterno as a victim of the media.

But if you've ever made a mistake, if you've ever mishandled a difficult situation, if you've ever done something you've regretted, then it should be hard to characterize JoePa -- a man who has done so much good outside of football -- as a pariah.

And therein lies the rub: What do you do when a wonderful man who made a terrible mistake dies? How do you properly honor an admirable life without whitewashing the egregious shortcomings that ruined the lives of others? I see the Penn State students paying tribute to Paterno in front of his statue on campus and wonder how many would still do so if they had young children of their own to protect. How many would do so if they were one of Sandusky's alleged victims.

I am not directly tied to the scandal at Happy Valley, so I wasn't among those who were wronged and thus it's not really my place to judge or forgive. But who among us can forget?

Community grieves Paterno's passing
Fans pay tribute to Paterno

Though the coroner's office will say cancer was the cause of death, those who know the story well will say Paterno died of a broken heart, a sad ending for a man who truly deserved better. And then you think about the children who allegedly grew up broken because of Sandusky's acts and Paterno's silence and you wonder who deserved better than them?

But this kind of conflict is not unique to Paterno.

I look at the way people lionize President Ronald Reagan and I wonder how they feel about Reagan letting years go by without publicly addressing the AIDS epidemic (possibly because the disease initially was seen as primarily affecting gays) or that he vetoed a comprehensive anti-apartheid act that would have placed sanctions on South Africa.

I watched the response to the manslaughter verdict against Michael Jackson's doctor and marveled at the passion people had for justice for a likely drug addict who was twice accused of child molestation. If Jackson wasn't such an amazing artist, would the people outside of the courthouse decked out in glitter and holding signs be so forgiving? And did they really forgive Jackson for his alleged trespasses or did they simply chose to ignore them because they got in the way of their neatly packaged narrative?

Paterno has died, and I do not know how to compartmentalize the good from the bad. Just as I am incapable of thinking about Reagan without seeing the thousands and thousands of ailing Americans he didn't even try to help. Or how hard it is to listen to a Michael Jackson song and not wonder about the boys he was accused of molesting -- or how hard it is to watch reruns of "Seinfeld" and not recall the racist rant from the actor who played my once favorite character, Kramer.

That's the good thing about 24-hour media: it is hard to keep dirty little secrets. But this is also the bad thing. In a lot of ways, life was easier when we didn't know as much. We could have mourned a hero like Paterno and not feel conflicted.

If you do feel conflicted.

Some people can see the world in black and white.

I'm not one of those people.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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