Monday, January 19, 2015

One last time on Joe Paterno's legacy

As of last Friday, the late Joe Paterno is once again officially the winningest coach in major college football history.
NCAA President Mark Emmert and Pennsylvania State Sen. Jake Corman, the lead plaintiff in the case, offered dueling interpretations at separate news conferences Friday, both announcing a settlement in a lawsuit stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University. Pennsylvania officials brought the suit against the NCAA and Penn State, challenging the validity of the consent decree they signed in 2012 that assigned unprecedented punishment to the school for its failure to act on information years earlier regarding Sandusky.

That consent decree is no more.

The settlement restores 112 victories to Penn State, 111 of those to Paterno, the legendary coach who died three years ago this month. And it directs $60 million — a penalty the school agreed to pay in the consent decree — to programs serving victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.
It is interesting how a package of sanctions that was supposedly so harsh as to be "worse than the death penalty" (turns out that the Penn State football program might not have even been facing a suspension of play to begin with) and was to have crippled the Nittany Lion program for years (I wrote at the time that "it could be a decade, if not longer, before the program recovers") has completely unraveled in less than three years. Penn State went bowling last December after serving only two years of what was originally a four-year bowl ban, the scholarship limitations imposed against the PSU program have been rescinded, and now the erasure of 111 of Joe Paterno's victories from the record books - a functionally-meaningless but symbolically-significant sanction - has been reversed as well.

While it might be easy to restore Paterno's record, restoring his legacy as a coach and a person will be much more problematic:
Whether the NCAA's latest giveback to Penn State is viewed as another step toward Paterno's vindication or a failure by the one organization that had the ability to hold the coach accountable for his failure to do more to stop Sandusky is in the eyes of the beholder. One thing is for certain: The number 409, like Paterno's legacy, will never be looked at quite the same way again.

"Assessing Joe Paterno's legacy is something that is well-suited for documentary film or other long form journalism because there are no tidy answers," said director Amir Bar-Lev, whose film "Happy Valley" was released in December. "Closing the book on Joe Paterno on having been a phony all of his life or being completely without any blame in this matter or this kind of third way, this sort of Jekyll and Hyde hypothesis that we heard variations on, are all too simple."

For more than four decades, Paterno was not only the embodiment of Penn State football, he was the face of college football. He was revered in State College, Pennsylvania, and widely respected as a coach who won 'the right way.' Penn State was a football powerhouse that played by the rules with players who were both top-notch students and athletes. That was the story told over and over and there were facts to back it up: high graduation rates, national championships and a clean bill of health from the NCAA.

He was Saint Joe to many Penn State supporters in Happy Valley and beyond and always will be.

That he was dragged down by the Sandusky scandal, and fired unceremoniously by Penn State's board of directors a few days after his longtime defensive coordinator was arrested in November 2011 is still hard for many to reconcile. Paterno died of lung cancer just a few months later. When the NCAA sanctioned Penn State and Paterno based on a scathing report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that accused the Hall of Fame coach and other top Penn State officials of burying child sex-abuse allegations against Sandusky to avoid bad publicity, it shattered JoePa's virtuous public image and infuriated those close to him.
Paterno's supporters, including his family, have hailed the settlement. Others are, needless to say, very disappointed:
It's a disgrace to the victims.

What are the victims thinking today? They are thinking football makes the rules, as usual.

Every day, the lessons of Sandusky and Penn State are eased or brushed away. The bowl ban lifted, scholarships restored early, the wins restored. Soon, the Paterno statue will be rolled back out to its place at the football stadium. It won't be like nothing ever happened. Sandusky, after all, is in jail for a long time, and that won't change.

Still, Joe Pa catches a break. History books will have his name, for the time being, on the top line.

The big message is the victims are discounted. Here is the second message…wait long enough and a scandal's scorn will subside and all will be made well. 
A Penn State alum agrees:
We've cheated the system, bullied our way back into the record books. And we've told the world once again that in Happy Valley winning is more important than anything. All those boys who were raped? Well, that's not our problem. What's important is making sure coach Paterno's 409-136-3 is restored.

"The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth," said Mister Mann Frisby, a Penn State alum, and track coach for more than 11 years.

"The NCAA sanctions athletes for the smallest things -- you take a parent to lunch, it's a violation. You help a student-athlete pay for airfare for their parent to see a game, it's a violation. Students lose eligibility, sports programs are punished. And now, the NCAA is lifting sanctions after boys were molested and raped on his watch and he did little or nothing to stop it. This sends a terrible message," said Frisby, who was the first person in his family to graduate from college.
I have mixed feelings about all this. Joe Paterno was a tremendous football coach, but in my mind his legacy will always be tarnished by what he did - or more accurately, did not do - to prevent Jerry Sandusky from abusing children. In an effort to preserve his and his program's reputation, he essentially looked the other way while these horrors occurred, and he should always be remembered for that.

That being said, history cannot be changed. As a head coach Joe Paterno won those 111 games, regardless of what the NCAA's official record book might say. Those 111 victories, furthermore, were not just his but also those of hundreds of Penn State student-athletes who had absolutely nothing to do with the scandal; they did not deserve to be punished along with Paterno by having their victories officially wiped from the record book. Finally, as I noted before, this was a purely symbolic gesture that did nothing to materially assist Sandusky's victims in their quest for justice.

What I find to be most significant about all this is the increasing impotence of the NCAA and its ability to effectively sanction athletics programs for wrongdoing; in their rush to appear proactive and punish Penn State, they left themselves open to the lawsuit that resulted in this settlement.

See here and here for my previous thoughts on this topic; this post will be my final word on Joe Paterno and whatever his legacy might be. He is dead; Jerry Sandusky will die in prison. I hope that his victims are able to find healing, comfort and peace in their lives.

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