It is not facetious to say that dying may not have been the worst thing to happen to Joe Paterno this past year.
Has ever anyone in sport suffered such a tarnishing of his character in such a short period of time? Especially now as new allegations — exposed in leaked emails from other Penn State officials — suggest that the sainted JoePa was not merely passive when confronted with eyewitness evidence of Jerry Sandusky’s pedophilia but was, in fact, an influential voice in deciding that Sandusky should not be reported to law enforcement.
It’s interesting that from the very first, when it was understood that the coach had not responded with sufficient urgency, the prevailing question became: How will this affect Paterno’s legacy? That was especially revealing of Paterno’s reputation, because legacy is seldom a common point of debate in sport.
After all, defining legacy in sport is easy. It’s simply measurable: How many touchdowns? How many wins? How many championships? Oh, a few athletes like Billie Jean King or Jackie Robinson do possess a genuine legacy, and there is no doubt that Paterno had gained a special esteem beyond his record.
Ironically, he had obtained this status because big-time college football is such a contradiction. On the one hand, it’s the sport that is most glamorously a social part of our culture. College football is more than just a game — it’s a weekend. Alumni return to campus for what? For homecoming. And homecoming is a football game. Football coaches are the maitres d’ of college.
But, curiously, it is also understood that college football is, off the field, deceitful and corrupt. How strange this sweet home that we love. But that is why Paterno is supposed to have earned a legacy as well as a record, for he was held up as different — as an honest man succeeding in a dodgy enterprise.
He was of college football, but above it.
Everyone knows that the key to winning as a big-time coach is keeping your players eligible. Some of that effort is legal, some not. Give the players tutors and gut courses, or even have someone write term papers for them. Get the campus police and the local cops to cooperate. Hey, boys will be boys. Overlook. Blind eye. Forgive them their trespasses as game day approaches. Keep them eligible.
Joe Paterno was a football coach all of his long, adult life. Like all coaches, after a while, keeping your players eligible is second nature.
When his old assistant was in trouble, that must’ve kicked in. Joe Paterno kept Jerry Sandusky eligible. If he has a legacy, that’s it.