Joe Paterno: The God who fell

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.

19 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Tragedy for All

I don't have an for Joe Pa's fall from grace. He sounds like a confursed 85 year old man. I don't believe Joe Pa's salary is the determining factor in his abandonment of right/wrong but his friendship with Sandusky taints everything. He put Sandusky on a higher plane to be protected over the abuse of children. How he could reconcile the ensuing 9 years of possible(probable) child abuse is beyond me. A simple answer is he didn't know the kids being abused and he did know Sandusky.

I don't know if it has been brougjht before but when McQueary first brought the shower incident to the attention of his father, the father told him to wait and bring it to the attention of Joe Pa the next day. I would like to think that if that was my son I would have behaved differently. But you know what I don"t know.

Paterno Not Too Big to fail....

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?

Dave, in this case, when the failure was so big with consequences this destructive the answer is absolutely yes. He chose to protect "the brand" rather than those children Sandusky preyed upon. And for that he ended up destroying or at least leaving in shambles his legacy and the very thing he ruined himself to protect, "The Brand.". Sadly, Joe Paterno went to his grave knowing just that. I celebrate no ones death, and their are certainly far worse people than Joe Paterno, but I will continue to mourn for the true victims of this ordeal, and Joe Paterno is not one of them. If he is a victim he is only victimized by his actions and decisions.

Paterno Not Too Big to fail....

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?

Dave, in this case, when the failure was so big with consequences this destructive the answer is absolutely yes. He chose to protect "the brand" rather than those children Sandusky preyed upon. And for that he ended up destroying or at least leaving in shambles his legacy and the very thing he ruined himself to protect, "The Brand.". Sadly, Joe Paterno went to his grave knowing just that. I celebrate no ones death, and their are certainly far worse people than Joe Paterno, but I will continue to mourn for the true victims of this ordeal, and Joe Paterno is not one of them. If he is a victim he is only victimized by his actions and decisions.

Paterno's actions are a

symptom of the bigger problems with major college sports in that at many of these institutions the brand of the dominant athletic program whether it be football or basketball holds a huge amount of power over the whole institution.
Paterno did wrong that is for sure, but he had the whole institution at Penn State backing him up all in the name of protecting the football programs brand. I for one would not be shocked if it ever came to light that Texas or Oklahoma had also covered up criminal actions for the same reasons.

Just a below average Joe

When people are successful in sports or showbiz, we tend to fill in their personalities as if we really know them. The media presents them all as if they are wonderful people. Tiger Woods is a great example, and Joe is another. From the way people talked about him, he was supposed to be a lot more that just a coach. He was supposed to be a leader, an example for others. This scandal revealed him to us as just another guy whose first thought was to cover his ass and protect his program. That's the letdown. The Great Joe who was sold to us would have called the police made sure the abuse stopped, whatever it took. The real Joe did the minimum and hoped it would all go away. I wonder if he ever thought about those kids that his inaction condemned to years of a guy like Sandusky.

I Never Trusted the Guy

It may not be classy to speak ill of the departed, but I never trusted him for remaining a head coach at 85. To me, it's the height of hubris and selfishness to deprive a younger person of the opportunity he would not relinquish until he was almost dead.

Paterno


I know you have an axe to grind concerning college sports. I agree college football is paying outrageous salaries to sustain the cash cow college football and basketball at some schools has become. Much of that money, at a number of schools, now goes to support other sports that otherwise would not exist at many schools. Certainly with Title 9, schools have to find the funding to support almost all of those teams.
While I don't have to numbers I think that Joe Paterno's salary this year wasn't in the top 50 off all Division IA football coaches. I would like you to name one football coach who returned more of his salary to the school where he coached than Joe Paterno has. .

Why didn't the grand jury indict Joe Paterno, if as you allege he was so derlict in his duties? Yet they did indict those who he reported his hearsay too and they didn't do much to follow up on his report. Or for that matter why didn't Mike McQueary's father tell him to report to the police what he saw?.
From all the reports that I have read Mike McQueray never specificly told Joe Paterno that he saw Sandusky raping an about 10 year old boy.

None of us condone child abuse and most of us on seeing it would try and stop it.

If Joe Paterno were black

I would just like to know, if Joe Paterno or "JoePa" were black, would he be receiving all of this outpouring of support or sympathy? The man was an accessorie to a crime, who cares about his legacy, his legacy burned to flames from my point of view when he let a child, and probably countless others fall victim to his friend Sandusky. His career ended in supreme disgrace!

Nobody defended Reggie Bush for losing his Heisman, but it baffles me that Paterno still has all of this support and sympathy for letting a child predator maintain employment. Again, if Paterno was black, specefically a black college athlete, would he receive this much sympathy and support? Even if he was a black college athlete from Penn State? Would he have been given a pass? Think about it.

My Everlasting Tribute to JoePa

Dear Dave

I Love your site and how your ain't afraid to tell it like it is



Joe Pa will be remembered in my eyes for exposing where America's Pulse and Spirituality is at.

American's are more interested in making sure that their God rather it be Football,NASCAR or MMA is preserved.

Then
*To know the Federal Reserve thru Wall Street is robbing them thru the Bailouts for Derivatives(Bets made),Speculation,Naked Short Selling,Hedging(Which means"Heads I win Tails you lose) which is nothing more than gambling
*To know that a foreign power is controling their government thru their Lobbies AIPAC and the ADL
*The US Soldiers are in the Middle East for the Shareholders of the Federal Reserve's Profits and for Israel.
Thru this their murdering,Butchering, Innocent Women and Children.
And
Peeing on dead corpses.

But


American's Values and Morals are to defend a coach who Aided,Abetted and protected a Pedophile.

This used to be a nation that once in the early 70's on the Kent State campus protested the Vietnam War.

Wow how a long way America has come,all for the beyond worse.

Actually Prisoners have better Morals and Values than their counterparts on the outside.

You see the Jerry Sandusky Case is not only about Jerry Sandusky and Joepa.
It's also about where America'sPulse,Spirituality,Values and Morals are at.

Which is Disgusting,Filthy,Sickening.

Recently when the Penn State Alums and Student Body took up defense for JoePa instead of being happy for those molested victims.

I'm like"Ohh my God,is this how far America's Fallen???

Thank you JoePa for at the End thru the Jerry Sandusky case for truly exposing where the American People's Hearts are at

roninfreedom

@Dr. SK

"If Joe Paterno were black, would he be receiving all of this outpouring of support or sympathy?"

First off, it's not like the "outpouring of sympathy" has been universal. It's notably stronger the closer you get to State College, PA. As for those not blindly loyal to him, nor to the PSU establishment, they are sympathetic for a variety of reasons, but even they have not argued that he was fired unfairly, nor calling to replace his statue on campus. Second, if you build up 60 years of good will from a community, people may not forgive all your errors, but they will weigh them against your good deeds. Oddly enough, sometimes that is more helpful than mere skin color. Ask Sandusky's victims how much white privilege is worth.

Reggie Bush is your comparison? Paterno failed to show moral leadership, but did not break laws nor violate university rules by all testimony. Reggie Bush knowingly broke an NCAA rule, so he lost a trophy. He did not lose his livelihood over it, unlike Paterno. You can argue over the merits of the NCAA and its rules (and I would), but it was clear Bush violated the spirit and letter of amateurism rules as specified when you accept an athletic scholarship. His alma mater paid more restitution over the infraction than he did, despite having no direct role in it, so for all practical purposes, he did get a pass.

Key word..."Ruin"

To Aaron,

To use your words, "Bush violated the spirit and letter of amateurism." Let me ask you a question...what did Paterno "ruin" the spirit of when he decided not to "ruin" anyone's weekend when a young boy got raped in a shower?

What spirit was that ruining? It's funny how you interpret that Bush was ruining the spirit of the NCAA, the corrupt and hypocritical institution of the NCAA by the way, but Paterno looking the other way and knowing Sandusky was raping a young child (and countless others) then allowing him to maintain employment, that's not ruining the spirit of the NCAA...or just humanity in general? OK, I understand. I get it.

penn st/paterno/football worship

All the paterno defenders, happy vallyers. Your child has been molested(probably boned) by a penn st coach, not some disadvantaged (read negro). Let it go?.......

Paterno's Eulugy

Really hasn't been written. As the various lawsuits play out and the truth becomes known (whatever it is . . . right now we really don't know), we'll see.

A good part of this is the idolatry . . .

. . . that is given to successful college coaches. Here in Texas, Mack Brown ($5M+ salary) can do no wrong, because he is a great leader who even mixes with the tail gating crowd on game eves and game days. He is one of us "aw shucks" folks who mirrors our hopes and dreams for success and achievement. (I got this from a recent cab ride in Austin.) I suppose Miles at LSU, Saban, Beamer at VT, and a few others enjoy this near-divine status, too. It's hard to just point the finger at Paterno for his failures when he is (or was) told every day by his adoring fans that he was bigger and more important than life its ownself. Marx was wrong. Big-time sports is the opiate of the people, and they want to treat their coaches as gods.

A Much Earned Fall From Olympus

Overseas now, away from Internet, and just found out about Joe`s passing. Sorry if it offends but he got the ending to his life he deserved. He was old enough to be the father of everybody involved in the scandal, the alleged perp included, and the defacto Zeus of PSU Athletics. His post scandal explanations of not knowing how to deal with his Sandusky problem just don`t hold water next to his public image.

Joe Pa`s vertical nose dive off the peak of Olympus still has my head spinning.

The only good thing that will come of this is for all of college athletics to be truly amateur, non profit enterprises, and stop being a farm system for the NBA and NFL.

Leadership/Coaching

Joe Paterno was a great college football coach.Maybe the greatest of all time. But he wasn't a leader. Period. He was a coach not a leader!Period.

There is no Justice in America

All of you people who didn't support Joe should go to HELL! There is no proof that sandusky did those acts, I bet those kids are just lying for attention and Money. And even if he did, JoePa did what he was suppose to do for this situation, yet he was crucified by the school he did so much for. Now he is dead and Sandusky still walks free how is that justice. You all believed what the media told you over the actual person himself and were so quick to judge. You all make me sick!

Joe Pa. legacy

I just read where one guy writes, & asks the question,"should a mans legacy that spanned several decades be marred by one incident or 1 scandal" well when that 1 incident or 1 scandal , involves children that started (as far we know) in the 90's & continues thru the 00's & then finally concludes with the final arrest of Sandusky & the firring of Paterno in 2011 I'd say that's decade'S (plural) TOO!!!!!!!

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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 dave@edgeofsports.com.
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