How do you define a man who for 60-plus years has been an institution bigger in some respects than the institution of higher learning that employs him? Prior to last Friday, summing up what Joe Paterno meant to the isolated, idyllic Penn State campus would’ve been easy: everything.
Now, the answer is much more muddled, much more tainted.
JoePa, as he’s affectionately known, is the first man most people think of when they hear Penn State, a reaction that will likely continue long after the shock of his retirement Wednesday subsides. As football programs around the country faced off-field scandal after scandal spanning multiple decades, Paterno was the moral compass Nittany Lion Nation — hell, college football as a whole — knew they could count on to never lead them astray even as the sport was seemingly hurtling toward some sort of gridiron Sodom and Gomorrah. When it came to that program, you knew what you were going to get: players clad in beautifully-bland uniforms being led by a man girded with impeccable character and straight-out-of-the-fifties glasses. And a moral fiber that was above reproach.
It wasn’t just Penn State football that has been Joe Paterno since Lyndon Johnson was sitting in the Oval Office. Penn State, the university, has been Joe Paterno.
After what’s transpired the past five days, the facade of integrity that took more than a half-century to build has been shattered and perhaps irreparably damaged by the child-sex abuse scandal that’s saddened and sickened even the most hardened of observers. The memories of a program that did things the right way led by a man who ensured things were done the right way? Replaced to a large degree by the horrifying images contained in the grand jury’s 40-count indictment of Jerry Sandusky, the former Paterno assistant who was once among the coach’s most trusted lieutenants.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “legacy” as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” On paper, what he’s leaving behind is undeniable and untouchable: 409 wins, the most in Div. 1 history, as well as two national championships and multiple coach-of-the-year awards. One of just a handful of BcS conference schools — Stanford, Northwestern and Boston College being the others — to never have been found guilty of a major violation in football. Consistently graduating a higher percentage of his football players than the vast majority of football programs around the country.
That’s a black-and-white football legacy likely never to be equaled. The gray area outside of anything that can be measured statistically, the DNA that makes up one’s moral fiber? That gray area as it pertains to Paterno is a moving target, hard to grasp in the immediacy of a moment with still many more questions than answers.
The gruesome details have been repeated ad nauseam since their release late last week, but the singular question remains: why didn’t Coach Paterno go to the authorities when it became clear the administration was going to sweep under the rug the allegations of on-campus sodomizing witnessed by one his grad assistants and perpetrated by his former heir apparent? And this isn’t about using the power Paterno had built over the decades to run roughshod over the legal system and play judge, jury and executioner. This is about the moral responsibility of a human being, about a man — one who dedicated his life to raising up and protecting kids entrusted to him — failing miserably when the opportunity to protect even younger, more defenseless kids arose by doing nothing more than the bare minimum required under the law.
With authority comes responsibility. With responsibility comes accountability. Of all the times Paterno failed to win on a football field, his failure to live up to everything he preached for over the years– holding himself, his players and his program to a higher standard — is his biggest loss, his biggest failing. The accountability that was a bedrock of the man was lost, as was the innocence of any subsequent victims. He failed everything he stood for when he sat down and did nothing more than what was sufficient in the eyes of the law.
With the 20/20 hindsight available even at his advanced age, Paterno can see how miserably he, and undoubtedly many others, failed those children.
“It is one of the great sorrows of my life… I wish I had done more,” a portion of Paterno’s retirement announcement read.
The failure is not Paterno’s alone, certainly. The laundry list of Penn State officials and those associated with Sandusky’s children’s charity who could’ve done something, anything to prevent further victims from the tentacles of an alleged pedophile is sickening in its length, and those people should be relieved of their duties as well. That doesn’t, however, absolve Paterno of the culpability for his inaction. It’s an embarrassing stain on an otherwise impeccable record both on and off the field that won’t, and shouldn’t, be forgotten.
Certainly all the good he’s done for the players he calls “his kids” cannot be erased, nor can all he’s done for the community or the sport be minimized or tossed to the side. And certainly there’s far, far more good deeds in the numerical sense than bad, even as the bad as we currently know it reaped unimaginable consequences for numerous innocent children and outweighs in the minds of some any good for which he’s directly responsible.
Joe Paterno, the football coach, and Joe Paterno, the man, have always been intertwined, walking in lockstep as the model of what amateur athletics on and off the field should be. Right or wrong, the scandal that ultimately forced the ouster of a coaching legend is part of his legacy forevermore; how big a part of his legacy is up to the writer or reader of the whole of the narrative.
For me, it’s merely a reminder that human beings, great and small, are fallible. Even, and especially, those that cast as large of a shadow as Coach Paterno.
Unfortunately for JoePa, and much more so for the victim at the time and those that came after, the fallibility that surfaced in 2002 had unintended but nonetheless tragic consequences. That’s something Coach Paterno will have to live with for however many more years God grants him on this earth.
And that is a hell of a lot more damaging and painful to a man with not many breaths left than any rewrite of his legacy could ever be.