Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What will Joe Paterno's legacy be?

Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum ponders it:
Paterno's final chapter should, by the hardbound terms of traditional journalism, begin with the tawdry story of (former assistant coach and alleged child molester Jerry) Sandusky, which colored -- nay, dominated -- the final three months of his life. But even most of those who have been critical (including me) of Paterno's failure to act when alerted about inappropriate behavior between Sandusky and an underage boy would agree that this extraordinary man deserves an obituary without mention of Sandusky, who is facing multiple charges of sexual abuse against children.
Alas, a Sandusky-less obit cannot happen. But put aside for a moment those last few tragic months and remember what Paterno meant to so many.
There's no denying Paterno's profound legacy as a college football coach: he spent 46 years at the head of Penn State's football program and in the process became the winningest coach in major college football history. His teams finished the season ranked in the top 5 of the AP poll 12 times, five of his teams were undefeated, and he won national championships in 1982 and 1986. He and his wife were philanthropists, donating $4 million back to Penn State. Paterno was a beloved figure to the Penn State community and an icon to the college football world in general. To belittle or to overlook all that he accomplished during his career simply because of the way it ended would be grossly unfair.
That being said, as McCallum glumly notes, a full accounting of Paterno's legacy cannot exclude his role in the child molestation scandal that eventually ended his career. By referring reports of Sandusky's alleged abuse to his superior, Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley, Paterno may have done what was legally required of him (in fairness, it should be noted that Curley is under indictment for his role in failing to pursue the matter, whereas Paterno was never accused of any criminal wrongdoing). However, given Paterno's own position of leadership, it's not unreasonable to have expected that he do more: he could have gone directly to the police with these allegations, or he could have followed up with Curley to see if they had investigated the matter any further, or, at the very least, he could have seen to it that Sandusky was no longer allowed access to Penn State facilities. Paterno has stated to the press that he wasn't sure how to handle the situation, that he "was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," and that, in retrospect, he regretted not doing more. I take him at his word. But that doesn't excuse his failure to be more proactive in a matter as serious and as heinous as the possible sexual molestation of children.
Another college football legend, Ohio State's Woody Hayes, is remembered as much for his punching of an opposing player in the 1978 Gator Bowl as he is for his tremendous success as a head coach. Only time will tell if Paterno will indeed be remembered for the scandal that ended his coaching career as much as for the success he had during that career itself. I think the Chronicle's Jerome Solomon sums it up best:
After the scandal become public, Paterno described what he didn't do as one of the great sorrows of his life.
"In hindsight, I wish I had done more," he said.
We all do, JoePa. We all do.
But like all men have and will, Paterno fell short of perfection.
Though tens of thousands who worship the ground he coached on might have you believe otherwise, Joe Paterno was not a god.
(UPDATE: following the release of the Freeh Report and the imposition of NCAA sanctions on the Penn State football program, I have re-evaluated Paterno's legacy.)

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