Joe Paterno — Trapped By Legacy
Legacy and reputation.
So much stock is put into how a public figure will be remembered after he has retired. Because of this reality, most individuals will do as much as they can to ensure they are seen in a good light when all has been said and done.
Joe Paterno was duped by this reality.
Damning evidence from the Freeh Report came out today concluding that JoePa and other Penn State officials decided to conceal the child sex abuse claims against Jerry Sandusky. The Freeh Report leaves virtually no doubt to Joe Paterno’s involvement, or lack thereof, in the whole Sandusky fiasco.
Reputation destroyed. Legacy destroyed.
Joe Paterno was beloved not only in the state of Pennsylvania but around the United States by the time 1998 rolled around. He was beloved for the football program he ran. He was beloved for the way he molded teenagers into men. He was beloved for creating an environment that any parent would be happy to send their child to.
This was the Penn State way.
Then, the allegations surfaced. The Freeh Report states that Joe Paterno and Penn State officials knew in knew about Sandusky’s crimes in 1998 and 2001 but they didn’t do a damn thing about it.
Joe Paterno was selfishly thinking of his reputation, his legacy.
Joe Paterno didn’t do the right thing in 1998 because Jerry Sandusky’s shortcomings had the potential to burst the bubble of Penn State’s pristine reputation. Jerry Sandusky rose through the ranks from the very beginning of Joe Paterno’s reign as head coach in 1966. By 1998, Sandusky had been part of Paterno’s program for over 30 years. To nail Sandusky in 1998 would have possibly meant a black mark on Joe Paterno’s aura of greatness. At least, that’s the way Paterno must have seen it.
He had worked for over 30 years to create one of the most storied programs in all of College Football. JoePa wasn’t going to let his disturbed, long-time assistant coach get in the way of that so he let him off the hook. Not coincidentally, Sandusky was no longer coaching at Penn State after the 1999 season. Amazingly, it wasn’t until the 2001 allegations that Penn State officials banned Sandusky from bringing children to campus. They still didn’t report him to the child welfare authorities though.
It’s hard to imagine any person with a soul enabling Sanduksy to do the horrible things that he did. However, when reputation and legacy are on the line for a public figure as adored as Joe Paterno, it is a little easier to imagine. Just a little…
Sports icons are such an important part of society but too much significance is placed on their legacy and reputation. These icons and heroes want to be thought of and remembered as people who made a positive difference in both the sports and real world. Few had made as big a difference as Paterno had in his years in charge of the Nittany Lions football program.
In large part due to the media and fans obsession with lifetime status, too much emphasis is put on the legacy and reputation of our sports figures.
It takes away their focus from the now. It can cloud their judgement. Clearly it did for JoePa.
By no means is that a valid excuse for Joe Paterno. As a human being living on earth, it was his duty to report Jerry Sandusky to the proper authorities. But he didn’t do what he should have at the time because he was worried about how he would be perceived in the future.
In 2001, when graduate assistant Mike McQueary saw Sandusky in a campus shower with a boy, it was too late. Joe Paterno and Penn State were in too deep. After covering up the Sandusky accusations in 1998, to do anything at that point would have ruined them faster than Bernie Madoff.
To report Sandusky would have obviously been the right choice but Joe Paterno was only thinking of himself. He was thinking about how this scandal would reflect on him. Burying the problem and hoping it would go away was the answer if he wanted to maintain his good standing with the public.
There may not have been evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to send Roger Clemens to jail. Nevertheless, it appears as though he was willing to lie to congress in order to keep his good reputation. He likely committed a felony simply to uphold his legacy. Roger Clemens couldn’t bear the thought of the public viewing him differently.
Brett Favre is often criticized for the way he handled his retirement. In the eyes of many, his legacy is tarnished. But Favre didn’t care about that when he was playing/retiring. He didn’t care and it allowed him to have one of the greatest seasons a quarterback could ever dream of at the tender age of 40.
Comparing Favre’s situation to Paterno’s may seem kind of ridiculous. Yes, the magnitude of their circumstances aren’t even on the same scale but there are similar principles. As indecisive as he was, Brett Favre did what he felt was right at the risk of his legacy and was rewarded for it.
Joe Paterno swept aside what was right in favour of his legacy.
Everyone had Joe Paterno up on a pedestal, including himself. Apparently, the possibility of tainting that image even slightly was enough reason to cover up a child sex abuse scandal.
There are still some diehard Penn State fans who are struggling with the undeniable evidence against Joe Paterno. It’s difficult for them. They don’t want their beloved hero to be remembered like this. They don’t want to remember Joe Paterno like this.
It’s the sad truth about the sports world. The importance of legacy and reputation can trump all.
No matter the cost.
Chris is a writer on Comedic Prose, and he also is the editor of Painting the Black.