Joe Paterno’s most fervent supporters always described “JoePa” as more of an educator than a football coach. The Brown University graduate with the English literature major, it was said, always wanted to make people around him think and learn. Now, following his passing at the age of 85, the all-time winningest coach in Division 1 college football history has given us another puzzle to ponder: When assessing a legacy, how much should one scandal be weighed alongside decades of service? Should a single moral failure, no matter how vast, be enough to actually undo the decades of good works that preceded it? The lives touched? The scholarships funded? The community constructed?
In Paterno’s case, he became victim of his own nurtured legend. He was felled by our perception of who he was, which we all believed would be a predictor of his actions when faced with difficult choices. This was more than a coach. This was a campus Sun King who never complained about the feel of the crown. The statues of Paterno on the Happy Valley campus, the academic courses that bear his name, even the Peachy Paterno ice cream for sale at the campus creamery, elevated Paterno beyond comprehension.
Yet the legend wasn’t built just around wins or championships. The reverence many Penn State alums hold for the man was less about unbeaten seasons, the record thirty-six bowl appearances, or showers of confetti. It was about a standard of morality and ethics that became inseparable from the Nittany Lion brand. As Aurin Squire wrote, “When Penn State won the NCAA championship in 1987, it was seen as a victory for the Constitution, flag pins, and whole milk.”
This is what made last fall’s grand jury report accusing revered longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky of being a serial child rapist so devastating to Paterno’s entire legacy. JoePa, upon hearing from grad assistant Mike McQueary that he witnessed Sandusky committing statutory rape in the showers, did everything required of him by law. He informed those above him, telling the head of campus police and the school president, both of whom are now out of work and under indictment. That was the minimum he had to do and the minimum is what he did. But according to our conception of who this man was supposed to be, there was no authority above Joe Paterno. There was instead an expectation that this man of integrity would without hesitation do far more than just fulfill his minimum legal requirements. Is that fair?When it’s your statue on campus and when the buildings bear your name, most would say hell yes.
When it was further demonstrated that Sandusky continued to be a presence on campus, in the locker room and even on Joe Paterno’s sideline with young children by his side, damning questions rose to a din: how could JoePa have been content with silence, given the possibility that children continued to be at risk? Did Joe Paterno, and the campus leadership, care more about their brand than anything that resembled human morality? Was a football program that had become the economic, social, and cultural center of an entire region, more important than all other concerns? Had abused children become, in the view of Penn State’s leadership, an unfortunate collateral damage necessary to keeping the cash registers ringing? The conclusions most people drew were not kind.
In the end, after decades of service, Penn State fired Paterno with a cold 10 pm phone call, causing a low-frequency campus riot. Since then, Penn State’s leadership has gone out of their way to protect “the Nittany Lion brand” (their words.) Joe Paterno was in the end far less important than what Joe Paterno had built. In the end, it was just business.
Paterno was able to give one last interview to the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins last month. He defended himself by claiming confusion because he’d “never heard of rape and a man.” For a football coach who always took pride in his own academic worldliness and erudition apart from football, this, to be kind, strained credulity. Paterno in his last days was sounding like yet another fallible person in power, corrupted by their deification. We’ve seen this character throughout American history. It was thought that Paterno had more character than to be just another character.
Let Paterno’s last teachable moment be this: if your football coach is the highest paid, most revered person on your campus, you have a problem. If your school wins multiple championships, and a booster drops money to build a statue of the coach, tear it the hell down. And if you think children are being raped, the minimum just isn’t good enough, no matter whether or not you wear a crown.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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