Joe Paterno became the head coach at Penn State in 1966. During his time in Happy Valley he amassed 409 wins, becoming the all-time wins leader in Division 1 college football history. He also led the Nittany Lions to two national titles (’82 and ‘86). He coached seemingly countless All-Americans, a Heisman winner, and winners of every individual college football award in existence. Until recently, all of his off the field accomplishments were honorable as well. He was the quintessential “good guy” coach of college football. His programs avoided controversy and major NCAA sanctions while the other big time programs didn’t. He was loved by both fans and players, contributed substantially to the university and community, and was admired by anyone who knows how many points a safety is worth.
Those things are all good, but unfortunately some information has become public that is definite cause to question Joe’s legacy. With Joe’s passing on January 22 after experiencing complications from lung cancer treatment, we look back and examine his place in college football lore. In black and white it can be argued that Paterno harbored a known pederast for well over a decade, giving him ample opportunity to prey on more innocent children. Even after Sandusky’s “retirement” he was allowed on the PSU campus and inside the athletic facilities from the time of the first reported incident in 1994 until 2011, all under Paterno’s watch.
However, this situation can’t simply be defined in terms of black and white. Paterno’s longstanding perceived integrity and character make us look at the gray area. There are a couple of arguments, although relatively weak in nature, that come to the defense of the legendary coach.
Firstly, he did actually inform authorities of Sandusky’s actions. They just weren’t the right authorities. He only informed school officials. Not only did Joe fail to inform the police, he had years and years to ponder his decision not to. This lack of responsibility led to Sandusky walking around a free man, and more incidents and victims have transpired since.
The “Hey, he did report Sandusky!” crowd has a point; it’s just not a strong one. Ask yourself this question: if Joe Paterno had sparked a police investigation into Jerry Sandusky’s actions, would his criminal behavior have ceased? The answer has to be a resounding “yes.”
The second defending argument for Joe, although much less concrete, is that the guy was just really damn old. Does a younger, quicker-witted Joe see to it that Sandusky’s sexually deviant ass is put behind bars? I’d argue that the chances are greater, sure. The guy could have been confused. He may not have fully grasped the severity of the situation or the affects of not putting a stop to it. That’s what old people do. They coast. They save their fucks for rainier days.
It’s also not a stretch to claim Sandusky was a direct catalyst to Joe’s passing. I hate to get soft on you here, but did JoePa die from a broken heart? Did he lose the fight inside himself? His life was Penn State football, and it was abruptly and dishonorably stripped from him at the age of 85. That’s not easy to overcome. Not only does Sandusky have a reserved table in hell, he’s undoubtedly responsible for contributing to the early demise of a college football icon. The thick, tinted glasses, the rolled up khaki pants, the Penn State windbreaker over his tie and button-down. This classic Paterno look has become synonymous with college pigskin, Penn State, and greatness. For some, it’s not anymore. Thanks, Sandusky.
Are these arguments and theories enough to vindicate Paterno? Have his decades of upstanding citizenship and honorable leadership trumped his lack of accountability in the Sandusky scandal? The answer to that question is in the eye of the beholder. Joe Paterno is a lovable character. Hell, I still like and appreciate the guy. He screwed up though. He screwed up badly, and we all need to accept that. When you think of the great man Paterno was, don’t only consider the lives he changed for the better. Please be mindful of the lives he could have changed, but didn’t…when he put his football program above all else.
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