A recent NPR story “Supporters Work To Reclaim Legacy Of Penn State Coach Joe Paterno” is, no doubt, opening old wounds and firing up both Paterno supporters and detractors. But what can we really say about Paterno’s legacy in this ongoing mess, with some court cases of direct and surrounding events still open? An attorney for one of Jerry Sandusky’s victims, Tom Kline, argues that “Paterno supporters are trying to rewrite history.” He suggests that “the university would be better served if those who come to the protection and aid of Joe Paterno would do so in a more balanced way and realize that what Joe Paterno has is a mixed legacy.” Can we view his legacy in any other way?
First, let me just say that I was sad when Joe Paterno passed away. Overall, he really was a good guy; at least, he tried to be. And can we really say any different about any good man or woman out there? The sad reality is that one of the worst mistakes Paterno made in his life of good was huge and devastating. It negatively affected countless lives. What Jerry Sandusky did to all those innocent, vulnerable boys and young men is sickening and just about the worst crime I can imagine anyone committing. And despite his knowledge of at least one specific incident, Paterno chose to pass the buck and return to business as usual.
When one considers Paterno’s legacy and all the good he did for Penn State and the student athletes he taught, coached, and inspired, those actions deserves praise, and certainly, one mistake does not erase all that good. Unfortunately, all the respect I gained for Paterno over the years led me to a great disappointment. But it did not take long for me to grow weary of the parade of haters on both sides of the issue. The day Paterno passed away, I read some Facebook comments made by people I don’t know, proclaiming their hope that Paterno would burn in hell. Whatever Paterno did wrong … I mean, come on people … he (she) who is without sin cast the first stone. Second, as soon as I heard that Paterno had died, my first thought was that someone would say Penn State had killed him because they fired him. I then saw on ESPN, leading into commercial, a short teaser to set up the next segment: former players speaking about Joe Paterno. One former player speaking said, “Joe Paterno died of a broken heart, and there are a lot of people responsible for that.” I get it; you remember only a man who helped and inspired you, but I still think I vomited in my mouth a little.
What Joe Paterno did (or didn’t do, rather) was wrong. He deserved to be fired over the incident, regardless of who he told about the incident as it was reported to him. He had a responsibility, an obligation far beyond his duty to the school hierarchy or “chain of command.” And that is something I hope that everyone agrees with. However, that does not make Paterno evil, neither does that put him in the neighborhood of someone that might deserve to burn in hell. It simply makes him human. Despite all of his success, and despite the good one can find in his legacy, Paterno was simply a man. Perhaps his supporters placed him on such a high pedestal they could not see his human fallibility, something that none of us can escape. We all do that, to a degree, to the people we respect the most. And that is probably the biggest problem with those on Paterno’s side. Shortly after Paterno died, Jen Floyd Engel, writing for Fox Sports, wrote an article that, at the time, made one of the best points about Paterno’s fallibility.
In the end, Paterno dropped the ball, plain and simple. It is textbook tragedy, that awful, gut-wrenching feeling that someone good, someone talented, someone espousing high morals, despite all his hard work, success, and accomplishments has failed, has fallen, and fallen hard. Aside from the obvious, horrific impact on the victims of Jerry Sandusky (and one can certainly argue that they were as much the victims of Paterno’s inaction), the fall of a man once highly regarded by almost everyone who knew him is what hurts the most, I think, for those on both sides of the issue that is Paterno’s legacy.