When I think about Joe Paterno’s legacy these days, an interview clip that I saw awhile ago featuring consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader comes to mind.
Nader was revered by most of America during the second half of the 20th century for his work in government reform and his commitment to citizenship. The investigative work done by Nader, which exposed a negligence for safety in the automotive industry, is one of the central reasons that the Highway Safety Act of 1966 was adopted, which requires car manufacturers to install modern safety essentials like airbags and seat belts. His work in food, drug, and air regulatory safety has indirectly saved thousands of lives.
And then he ran for President of the United States.
Nader entered the 2000 election as an independent and garnered less than 3% of the national vote. George W. Bush went on to defeat Al Gore in the election, amid a controversial vote count in Florida that put Bush ahead by a mere 537 votes. Nader received nearly 100,000 votes in Florida, most of which would have likely gone to Gore and given him the victory
Nader was labeled a spoiler by the media and taken to task by the progressive Gore fans that once supported him. His legacy that he spent nearly 50 years building was destroyed, and he was shunned from upper level politics forever.
When asked about his legacy, Nader responded, “What is my legacy anyways? Are they going to turn around and rip seat belts out of cars? Are they going to tear airbags out of cars? Are they going to remove food safety regulations, or revoke all the consumer friendly laws that I helped materialize?”
I can’t help but think that Nader’s general logic applies to the way I think about Joe Paterno today. Paterno has been villainized by most of the country, and in many cases, it’s deserved. Of course the Nader situation pales in comparison, because Paterno’s mistake left children open to sexual abuse. But Paterno has the same sort of living legacy that Nader does in that his contributions over the past half century cannot be entirely erased by one giant mistake.
Listen, I’m far from a Paterno apologist. At best, he was deceitful in showing how much he knew about the 1998 incident and made an egregious and inexcusable mistake in not making sure abuse was properly reported. At worst, he maliciously covered up child abuse to save his program’s reputation. I suspect it’s somewhere in the middle, and I doubt it’s on either extreme. Either way, he messed up in a terrible way, and his reputation is now rightfully paying the price for his mistakes.
But the “Grand Experiment” wasn’t a lie — it was very real. And the positive effects Paterno had on thousands of lives will not be undone because of what happened.
Former Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark described the first time he met Paterno. “For the first 20 minutes we talked about everything BUT Penn State,” Clark said. “We talked about school, my family, my girlfriend, my high school football season; the list goes on. During my recruiting process no other coach did that.”
There are thousands of stories just like Daryll Clark’s. There’s the tale of former tight end Andrew Quarless showing up on Paterno’s doorstep after getting into legal trouble, head in hands, begging for another chance. Quarless is now a Super Bowl winner for the Green Bay Packers.
Jimmy Cefalo’s eulogy of Paterno says it best. “He took the sons of the coal miners, and he took the sons of steel mill workers, and farmers in rural Pennsylvania, with the idea that we would come together, and we would do it the right way — the Paterno way,” Cefalo said. “If you look around our letterman today, and you find doctors, and lawyers, and policemen, and firefighters. You find people who have gone back to various communities across this country and have contributed as philanthropists, as fathers, and husbands — and we did it in large measure because of Joe’s example.”
But you already know all of this. I don’t need to go on with more cliche anecdotes and stories because they have already been pounded into the heads of Penn Staters who bought into the so-called “cult of Joe Paterno” for so many years.
All I’m saying is that Daryll Clark, Andrew Quarless, Jimmy Cefalo, and the thousands of other young men whose lives Paterno touched don’t just disappear, just like the seat belts and airbags didn’t disappear when Ralph Nader got his lashing in the public sphere. And it’s important to remember that when you talk about Paterno’s legacy.
Look, there’s no defense for how Paterno handled the Sandusky situation, and the people trying to defend his actions resemble a sick, pathetic cult. He messed up, big time. People can knock Louis Freeh’s credibility, say that there aren’t enough facts, or try to argue that Paterno’s actions were justified. If the Freeh investigation, conducted in the same manner, had exonerated Paterno, the Paterno stronghold would be claiming it as gospel. These people are only embarrassing themselves, and more importantly to me, embarrassing the Penn State community to the rest of the world.
But blowhards like Mark May of ESPN who say that Paterno is just as morally corrupt as Jerry Sandusky are just as bad as the apologists. Jason Whitlock believes that Paterno’s inactions are a result of him sympathizing with Sandusky’s sexual demons. These are fantastical claims made by non-serious people, and they should be treated as such and ignored.
So take down the statue. Change the name of Paternoville. Take his name off whatever tangible thing you can find. I don’t care, and I know Paterno himself wouldn’t care either. They still can’t take away all the lives he made better during his time here at Penn State — athletes and non-athletes alike.
It would be insensitive for me to claim that the good that Paterno did outweighed the bad. It certainly isn’t any solace to all the boys who were abused by Sandusky over the last 14 years after Paterno and the other three let him off the hook. It’s imperative that Penn Staters find a middle ground when trying to explain Paterno’s legacy. It is possible to be a good man and make a tragic mistake.
Just don’t make a fool out of yourself and our school by trying to defend that mistake with the illusion that Paterno is someone that he wasn’t.