The legendary Joe Paterno, 85 but recently seeming old for his age, passed away this past weekend and leaves behind a life full of accomplishment, altruism, and goodwill. His pristine reputation, earned in full public view in the past 46 years as Penn State’s head football coach, was tarnished in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but not obliterated. The proportion of which these polar opposites will endure to form the ultimate shade of gray will depend more on individuals weighing and evaluating Paterno’s legacy than any collectively formed judgment.
My opinion at the time the scandal broke has not changed: when presented with a firsthand witnessed account of Sandusky’s alleged indiscretions by graduate assistant Mike McQueary, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, and Graham Spanier acted consciously and in self-preservation to cover up the crime, thus enabling Sandusky to continue his abhorrent behavior for another eight years.
If Paterno had turned in Sandusky to the appropriate authorities–not merely his higher-ups in title but not compensation or power–in 2002, he would have been fired as Penn State football coach due to a combination of his age, the comparatively milder cover-up from 1998 when Sandusky was first investigated, and–most importantly from a career, if not humanitarian, perspective–that Penn State had been struggling on the football field and had not had a bowl appearance in the previous three years.
It’s impossible to say for sure what anybody else would have done if he/she were in McQueary, Paterno, Curley, or Spanier’s shoes. I would love to believe that I would have acted with the utmost character, become a shunned whistleblower, and seen my guilty conscience bury the entire Penn State football program. But, I’m skeptical of institutions and authority figures to my own self-detriment. And I still don’t know for sure how I would have acted in any of their shoes because doing the right thing would have meant the end of my career, my professional reputation, everything I had worked for–to truly empathize with these men, my life. Decisive, morally correct action by Paterno would not only have cost him his own job–his life–but would also have been a black eye on his beloved Penn State, a blemish so severe and inextricably linked to his life’s purpose that it could very well have deluded him into believing that he was acting selflessly and for the greater good.
It’s impossible to overstate how glowingly Paterno was spoken and written about. Universally. He was put on a pedestal above all other mortal men for at least the past 25 years. When Paterno was named Sports Illustrated Man of the Year in 1986, Rick Reilly wrote:
In an era of college football in which it seems everybody’s hand is either in the till or balled up in a fist, Paterno sticks out like a clean thumb. His standard of excellence is so season-in, season-out consistent it borders on the monotonous: win 10, 11 games; send off another bunch of future doctors, lawyers and accountants. In the heyday of the Bosworth Ethic, when talking trash is hot and shaking hands before the coin toss is not; when the Texas coach gets fired for winning just 75% of his games, the Maryland coach runs a 9.9 100 to chat with a referee, and the Cal coach lets his Fruit of the Looms do his talking: when the going rate for a linebacker at SMU is said to be $25,000; when it takes a paralegal just to make out the sports page, we need the guy in the Photogray trifocals more than ever.
Over the last three decades, nobody has stayed truer to the game and at the same time truer to himself than Joseph Vincent Paterno, Joe Pa to Penn State worshipers—a man so patently stubborn that he refuses to give up on the notion that if you hack away at enough windmills, a few of the suckers will fall. Maybe we choose Paterno because he is a great football coach.
That all came crashing down swiftly in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. In noting that Paterno should not be seen as a martyr, The Daily Beast’s Buzz Bissinger writes:
Death inevitably enhances a person’s legacy. The controversies are set aside as a matter of dignity. The highlights are highlighted and the lowlights are lowlighted. If you read the obituaries of Richard Nixon, you would have thought Watergate a mere trifle. There were many highlights in Paterno’s life. His family has much to be proud of. He was truly special in the cesspool of sports. But his failure to act decisively in the Sandusky case should and cannot be dismissed as some incidental lapse.
ESPN’s Ivan Maisel gives Paterno a much bigger pass:
The Sandusky scandal has revealed that Joe Paterno missed in real time what may be seen so plainly in hindsight. The scandal has cast a shadow over a brilliant coaching life. But even the darkest of eclipses are temporary. To say that this scandal should obscure all that came before it ignores the meaning of legacy.
The 409 victories, while record-setting, are not the full measure of the man. The young men he left behind, the campus to which he devoted his life, a campus whose leaders shoved him aside in the panicky, feverish days after the scandal broke, also give testimony to the life of Joseph Vincent Paterno.
The whole of his life renders the seismology of modern-day journalism moot. The facts of a 62-year coaching career were shaken. They did not topple over.
Unsurprisingly, my feelings are closer aligned with Bissinger’s than Maisel’s. Ultimately, though, I agree most with the takes of Yahoo’s Pat Forde and Dan Wetzel who acknowledge the complicated nuances that Paterno’s accomplishments and (in)decisions leave behind when it comes time to evaluate his legacy.
When asked years ago what his epitaph should be, Paterno said, “I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.” We will write that because it’s true. But we cannot leave it at that.
Joe Paterno’s life cannot be viewed in black and white anymore. It ends with a sad shroud of gray placed over the prism of our perspective.
This will be forever the battle over Joe Paterno’s legacy. A life of soaring impact, of bedrock values, of generations and generations as a symbol of how to live life to its fullest.
The Sandusky case cracked that for some. Ended it. Not for all, though.
Paterno reached too many, taught too many, inspired too many. And for years and seasons, for decades and generations to come, those that drew from his wisdom will pass it on and on. That will be his most lasting legacy.
No, his worst day can’t be forgotten. Neither can all the beautiful ones that surrounded it.