Joe Paterno

The Paterno Legacy

One year ago today, the Sandusky scandal began. One year later, here we are.

I offer my thoughts on the Paterno legacy, such as it is. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to recite the monumental (literally) good that Joe Paterno and the Paterno family have done. Rather, I’m going to speak about his legacy, meaning that which survives after he is gone. Because, while a person’s life determines his or her legacy might be, ultimately it’s the way the living think of the dead after they are gone that constitutes what his or her legacy really is.

A summary: In the heat and passion of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury presentment against Jerry Sandusky in November 2011, the news media “understood that the story was Paterno.” Although it was Jerry Sandusky and two other University officers who were indicted, it was Joe Paterno who was most visibly and most consistently vilified in the national media — to the extent that months later, a plurality of Americans identified Joe Paterno as the child predator rather than Jerry Sandusky.

During this time Louis Freeh conducted an investigation that interviewed none of those four men and came to a conclusion greeted almost universally with some level of suspicion. But it achieved its purpose, which was to vindicate the Board’s decisions. Through it all, not only Joe Paterno but the entire Paterno family had their defenders—from students outraged at the Trustees for firing him, to alumni, friends, and bystanders who tasted the bitterness of the only man (and the football coach, at that) to express any wish for having done more. Nevertheless, it was Joe Paterno, the most decent man in the story, who was destroyed, by a mass culture that constantly implied that he was somehow the most guilty.

The Paradox of the Sandusky Scandal and our Response

The paradox of it all is this: as the piling on became worse and worse, and more people became outraged and dismayed with the treatment of Joe Paterno, his family, and the University by extension, we were told that we were out of place because we were acting like we were the victims — as if the University, or Joe Paterno, or his family were the victims of the tragedy, rather than Jerry Sandusky’s child-victims.

As we became outraged by the degradation of Joe Paterno and the University well below even Jerry Sandusky on the scale of public hatred, we spoke out. Hey, let’s hold on a minute here. Who was the real villain, again? And it was those of us who ventured caution or spoke proudly of the University or Paterno who were sidelined and told it was our values that were out of line, that it was our sense of perspective that was off!

The paradox, again: (1) The Sandusky scandal was so great in horror that it wasn’t about Penn State or the Paternos (2) which is why no sanction of punishment of Penn State or the Paternos is harsh enough (3) and to speak well of the University or the Paternos is out of line!

Do you see how strange this year has been? We can almost universally agree with Statement 1, but we cannot simultaneously agree to both Statements 2 and 3. If the NCAA sanctions, or the manner of firing of Paterno, or the treatment of the name of the family is out of line, then decency compels us to speak up for them. After all, it is the students, faculty, alumni, and employees of the University who had nothing to do with this who will bear the brunt of the punishments. This seems utterly lacking in perspective, not to mention any sense of fairness.

The Sandusky scandal was certainly not about Joe Paterno or Penn State, and we were certainly not the victims on Nov. 5, 2011, but the crushing weight of hatred and condemnation for the University, the Paternos, and our values from everyone who decided somewhere along the way that they “understood that the story was Paterno” have made us — the entire University and people of the Nittany Valley — victims, also. No, certainly not on anything like the same scale; but victims nonetheless.

What we also cannot forget is that the moral certitude of social condemnation does nothing for the victims — their justice was found in the courtroom, and in the legal settlements they will receive. We have legal justice precisely so that innocent people don’t lose their heads in the public square.

The Paterno Legacy as it Lives and Breathes

Joe Paterno is dead, and we carry on speaking about him, and what we can ultimately only speculate over about his motivations, his actions and inactions, and his legacy. What is the Paterno legacy? It’s his life and the life of his family, of course. It’s also a reflection of who are, because we create the Paterno legacy by our treatment of the dead man and his family. But people who from the start were so quick to judge, so quick to let the mob lead, so unwilling to speak for him, are not a particularly admirable people. This is the thing that few have admitted with particular candor.

I don’t claim to be a better man because I’ve spoken warmly of the Paterno family, but I do know I would be a lesser man for presuming from the start the worst about him. I know I would be a lesser man for presuming to know his soul, and his sincerity, and his culpability — all things we have as a community simultaneously admitted is beyond our ability to know and yet refused to let escape our mighty judgment.

The Paternos have built, and built, and built. They continue to do so. And we’ve torn down — his name certainly, and also his statue, and places of honor from athletic trophies to academic chairs and endowments and on. We tell ourselves we’re doing this because the name is tainted, except that each time we tear down we are the ones tainting our own name. This is not Christian, which is what most of us in this Nittany Valley profess to be, because it’s not dishonoring or tainting the dead man who is now beyond our grasp but in actuality tainting his family who live and breathe among us.

What is it that we have set ourselves to building?

We have understood the NCAA sanctions to be unjust because they’re a moral statement that harms the innocent and living rather than the dead, the fired, or imprisoned, or the institution. The University will live on even if it means losing four years of bowl games. Real students are bearing the weight of punishment so that small men and women can make a morality play. This false morality is present every time someone strikes against the Paterno name, because to strike against it is only to strike against the living.

When someone dies, they’re no longer useful to us. Who we are is reflected in how we treat those who are not immediately useful to us — useful to whatever ambitions and goals we hold in our hearts. The Paterno legacy is the story of us, and a legacy of intolerance, lack of patience, disregard for due process, and indifference to the truth for the sake of an easy narrative. As many have pointed out, it is the definition of scapegoating. The Paterno legacy ends on a particularly dark note because we are ending it that way.

“We have difficulty as a nation — this is American, and it relates to our particular time — we have difficulty admiring people,” writes Bill James. “We take such pride in our skepticism. But the natural antithesis of skepticism, the celebration of virtue and accomplishment, is wandering lost somewhere. It is the age of the anti-hero.”

A great hero has died, and so-o-o many people just want to deface his grave. It is not a pretty sight.