Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Joe Paterno's Legacy, Continued

Last January, shortly after his death, I wondered aloud what the legacy of iconic Penn State football coach Joe Paterno would turn out to be.

Well, after the events of the last few weeks - namely, the release of the Freeh Report which found that Paterno knew a lot more about and "concealed critical facts" about Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children than he had led the public to believe - I think that Houston Chronicle cartoonist Nick Anderson sums it up nicely:
Paterno, whose name was already tarnished prior to the release of the Freeh Report, has now become all but unmentionable. Penn State removed his statue from Beaver Stadium on Sunday. The NCAA, as part of a package of sanctions levied against Penn State's football program on Monday, vacated all of Paterno's victories from 1998 - the year he first heard about Sandusky's improper behavior with young boys - through last season. The elimination of 111 Penn State wins from the record books knocks Paterno down from first to twelfth on the list of winningest Division I college football coaches. Yahoo! Sports contributor Adam C. Biggers argues that this is a fate the late coach richly deserves:
A man who preached honor, respect, truth and dignity felt it was more important to retain the image of his football program rather than confront a monster who preyed on children. Paterno swept the incidents under the rug and, in essence, passed the buck to higher authorities who also did nothing. 
CNN contributor Roland Martin, who calls Paterno a "coward," agrees:
If Penn State officials or Pennsylvania politicians had any guts, they would strip the university bare of anything adorned with the name Joe Paterno. What his teams accomplished on the field is impressive, but no one can turn a blind eye to the failed leadership he exhibited off the field.
Forbes writer Monte Burke, on the other hand, thinks that vacating Paterno's victories is a meaningless gesture:
But vacating wins is just downright silly. What does it accomplish? The games are over, done, gone for good. Does vacating them wipe them from our consciousness? Will fans suddenly no longer be able to recall the 2005 11-1 team that won the Big Ten and the Orange Bowl?
Burke agrees that "Joe Paterno turned out to be a really bad person." But he also notes that "he won more games than any college coach in history. That’s a fact." And I can see his point, especially considering how the erasure of those 111 victories affects the players that earned them:
Others argue that the scars of their efforts still remain even if the win column looks different. Adam Taliaferro, a former player under Paterno, tweeted about a plate in his neck that is a lasting reminder of his spinal cord injury from playing at Penn State.

For them, the emotions and the sacrifices that they left on the field have been tainted. Former Penn State player Derek Moye says the vacating of victories ordered by the NCAA can't erase his memories of what he has been a part of. Former Penn State player A. Q. Shipley tweeted a picture of rings he won at Penn State. And former defensive end Devon Still tweeted a picture of a ring that was given out to players when Paterno passed the 400-win mark. No NCAA ruling will take that moment for him, he said.

Almost all of the former players note that their frustrations pale in comparison to those of the victims. But still, this sanction in particular stings deep for them. They believe they are paying the price for actions they did not commit.
But that's the way the NCAA works: they sanction entire institutions for the actions of a few individuals. These former players, through no fault of their own, end up paying for the sins of their coach and administration. And make no mistake about it: the elimination of these victories from the record book is all about Joe Paterno's sin.

The current and future Penn State program must pay as well. In addition to striking 111 of Paterno's victories from the record books, the association also levied a $60 million fine on the program, slapped the Nittany Lions with a four-year ban on post-season play (meaning that they will not even be eligible to compete for the Big Ten championship), reduced the number of scholarships the program can give out for the next four years (instead of signing 25 incoming student-athletes per year, they can only sign 15), and allowed current players to transfer to other programs without having to sit out for one year, as is normally the case. While the NCAA did not give Penn State the "death penalty" (something it has only done once, to SMU), and while the NCAA did not impose a television ban on Penn State (a once-common and truly debilitating sanction that seems to have been abandoned due to the complex nature of contracts between conference and networks), these sanctions are nevertheless crippling. For the next few years the program will struggle to attract recruits and will field a squad that, in terms of the number of players on scholarship, will be only slightly larger than that of an FCS school. Nittany Lion players and fans can expect a lot of losses over the coming seasons; it could be a decade, if not longer, before the program recovers.

Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel isn't particularly impressed with the NCAA's actions: "Justice has been served, assuming your idea of justice for rape victims is to deprive a school of its next four Outback Bowl invitations." Yahoo! Sportswriter Dan Wetzel, suggesting that the sanctions imposed are actually worse than the "death penalty," returns to Joe Paterno's legacy:
Penn State is now a pile of rubble, facing an uncertain future. That reality is part of the legacy of Paterno, who built the program to stratospheric heights only to leave it an unmitigated disaster. 
It's ironic, then, that the actions Paterno took (or, more accurately, didn't take) in order to build and protect his legacy ended up being the very things that destroyed it. Last January, I wrote of Paterno that "to belittle or to overlook all that he accomplished during his career simply because of the way it ended would be grossly unfair." Now that we know more, I've come to realize that it is, indeed, perfectly appropriate and fair to think of Joe Paterno as a man who enabled a child molester and failed to protect young boys first, and a college football coach second.

And that, for better or for worse, is likely how Paterno will be always remembered.

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