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Joanna Weiss

Paterno supporters show tendency to defend the indefensible

The halo over the late Joe Paterno was removed on July 14 by artist Michael Pilato.

Reuters; Associated Press

The halo over the late Joe Paterno was removed on July 14 by artist Michael Pilato.

The painted-over halo says it best.

Twelve years ago, an artist named Michael Pilato painted a mural, filled with Penn State luminaries, on a wall near the State College campus. He called the work “Inspiration,” and he kept it up to date. Last November, he covered over the image of Jerry Sandusky. In January, after Joe Paterno died, Pilato painted a halo above Paterno’s head.

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And last weekend, days after the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh came out, Pilato returned to the wall once again and painted the halo away. He also added a blue ribbon to Paterno’s lapel, to represent victims of child abuse, though the report made clear that Paterno had no such concerns when he was alive.

With Freeh’s damning evidence that Paterno was integral to the Sandusky coverup — that the powerful coach knew plenty, for plenty long, and did nothing to stop it — some of Paterno’s stubbornest defenders are finally backing down. There are still holdouts: Bill James, the Red Sox statistician, held forth on ESPN Radio this weekend with an incredible theory that Paterno was virtually powerless and had no imperative to act.

But the halo is gone. Nike reversed course and announced that it would rename the “Joe Paterno Child Development Center” at its headquarters. Nike founder Phil Knight, who had declared the coach a mistreated hero in his eulogy, issued a new statement: “It appears Joe made missteps.”

Knight can take comfort, at least, that he’s not alone; he joins a long chain of luminaries who have rushed to defend friends and colleagues, purported heroes and “good guys” who could surely do no wrong. Boston Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson backed a headmaster who eventually admitted to abusing his wife. A string of bigwigs gave court testimonials for a child sex offender, hired to videotape kids at the New England Conservatory. As we speak, local leaders are lining up to defend state Representative Carlos Henriquez, accused of domestic assault.

Could someone please grab the shoulders of each of these folks, the politicians and painters and cultural leaders, and tell them just to wait? It’s one thing to avoid hasty conclusions, to presume innocence until the evidence unfolds. It’s quite another to put your own reputation on the line, declaring the facts before the facts come in.

And yet people do it, again and again, risking embarrassment, insulting our intelligence. It’s a deeply human urge, said Sam Sommers, a social psychologist at Tufts University. We want to fit people’s behavior into narratives. We want to know what to expect.

In one classic psychology experiment, Sommers told me, a group of students was given a guest lecture. Beforehand, the students were told six or seven words that described the speaker, ranging from intelligent and industrious to critical and stubborn. Half the students heard the positive words first and the negative words last. The other half heard the words in the opposite order. Those who first were told that the lecturer was intelligent rated the speech better; those who were first told he was stubborn didn’t like him from the start.

Once we get ideas in our heads, Sommers said, we’re don’t like muddying them with complexity. Paterno did great things for the Penn State football program, donated millions to the library, and is therefore good — completely so, incapable of wrong.

Paterno was keenly aware of that image, said David Solly, a psychology professor at the University of the Rockies. And his early defenders, Solly said, might have been trying to protect their own reputations, justifying the fact that they’d backed him in the first place.

Surely, Paterno had expected this would happen. In one glaring way, he was a terrible judge of character. In another, he judged people perfectly. He knew that, with a halo, he could get away with plenty, from a sweet contract deal as the scandal played out to a statue of himself on campus.

His reputation’s latest turn made Solly recall an old story he’d heard on TV — maybe it was apocryphal — about Paterno and his friend and rival, West Virginia football coach Don Nehlen. They’d been boating at Nehlen’s house when Paterno fell overboard. He couldn’t swim, so Nehlen dove into the water and pulled him out.

“Whatever you do,” Nehlen told him afterward, “don’t ever tell the West Virginia fans that I saved your life.”

“I won’t,” Paterno replied, “if you promise never to tell the Penn State fans that I don’t walk on water.”

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter
@JoannaWeiss.
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