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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Joe Paterno: His legacy will endure the scandal

Published: January 26, 2012
Section: Sports

Just two months after being fired via the phone by the Penn State board of trustees for his failures in the Jerry Sandusky sexual child abuse scandal, Joe Paterno died this past Sunday from lung cancer. Paterno had been hospitalized since November 2011 when his son Scott Paterno announced that he had a treatable form of lung cancer; however, Joe Paterno suffered complications while under treatment and died shortly afterward.

Immediately after his death, former President George H. W. Bush issued a statement calling Paterno, “an outstanding American who was respected not only on the field of play but in life in general—and he was, without a doubt, a true icon in the world of sports.” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett added, “His legacy as the winningest coach in major college football and his generosity to Penn State as an institution and to his players stand as monuments to his life. … His place in our state’s history is secure.”

These public outcries of support and tributes to Paterno underlie the complexities that now surround his legacy. Like the majority of officials at Penn State, Paterno was tainted by his connections to Jerry Sandusky and his perceived failure in stopping Sandusky from raping more children. But to focus solely on Paterno’s shortcomings in this case is extremely shortsighted.

Paterno impacted the lives of thousands of Penn State students over his time at the university and for the better part of his life epitomized everything that was right in American sports culture. While most college sports programs tried to cheat the system with recruiting violations and grade inflation for student athletes, Paterno refused to break the rules. He ran a program dictated first and foremost on honor and then on winning.

Thus, what should have been a mass public period of mourning between the Paterno family and Penn State, turned into an extremely awkward relationship. The university that had fired Joe Paterno in a damage control effort surrounding the Sandusky scandal now had to re-paint him as the icon they tore down just two months ago. The Harrisburg Patriot News reported this past Tuesday that the Paterno family had “discouraged the Penn State board of trustees” from attending the memorial service on Thursday.

Since his death, there has been an outpouring of emotion and mourning from the Penn State community; however, at the same time, that same community has taken to local newspapers and online websites to direct almost universal anger at Penn State officials and the board of trustees for their treatment of Paterno.

Grief takes many different shapes and forms. The anger and vitriol being directed at Penn State officials and the memorial services being conducted in memory of Paterno are just different ways for members of the community to mourn. And while the current relationship between Paterno and Penn State has been damaged, time will heal those wounds. The wounds are still raw, but the current public outpouring of emotion and period of mourning have already started the healing process. The tie between Penn State and Paterno may not be fixed tomorrow, next month or next year.

But at some point, be it six months or six years from now, Penn State will once again be synonymous with the coach in the big glasses and tall white socks. Paterno wasn’t just a part of Penn State; in many ways Paterno was Penn State.

The university and its football program will move on, but Paterno will never be forgotten. Even if Paterno’s successor Bill O’Brien, the current offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, wins five national titles during his tenure as the Penn State football coach, Paterno’s impact on both the program and the university will never be forgotten.

Paterno’s connection with Penn State during the Sandusky scandal has complicated his otherwise shining legacy as one of the most iconic figures in American sports. But to dismiss all of his contributions to Penn State and college football because of his failings in the Sandusky scandal does a grave disservice to both Paterno and Penn State. At a time of heightened emotions, maintaining a long-term viewpoint is hard; however, in the end the Sandusky scandal will be a sad chapter in the life of a man that changed the way we view college football and Penn State.

Cancer took Paterno’s life but, in all likelihood, Paterno’s grief and regret over the Sandusky scandal took away his fighting spirit. It is perfectly acceptable and right to talk about the Sandusky scandal when remembering and discussing Joe Paterno, but don’t let it be the entire focus of his legacy.