The Demise of a Legend
This isn’t how it was supposed to end.
I suppose that’s only too obvious. Nobody could have ever predicted that it would be involvement in an alleged child-abuse cover up that finally put down Joe Paterno.
But it’s not a fitting end for a man who deserved so much more.
It’s almost a cliche to say that Paterno runs this university–hyperbole that’s taken on a much more exigent role in the wake of the allegations that have been charged against Jerry Sandusky, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz.
Then again, perhaps it’s true. I’ve camped out in Paternoville. I’ve studied in Paterno Library. I’m taking a class called “Joe Paterno and the Media.” If Penn State is a church, then Joe Paterno is its messiah.
And yet, he chose to spend his life on the earthly endeavor of college football. Of elevating it from a pastime to a force for good. Paterno used his pulpit not to pursue victories on the gridiron and trample all else in its wake, but to better the school, and the community around him.
More than 25 years ago, there were those who wondered if it wasn’t time for the 60-year-old Paterno to step aside, to let some new blood into the ranks of college football. But Paterno couldn’t retire. He couldn’t leave college football to the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the world.
If those men represented all that was wrong with the game, Paterno was their Yang. He strove to uphold the same excellence off the field as on it. His “Grand Experiment” was a success. He proved that Success with Honor was more than some intangible aim. That was his reality.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Over his lifetime of achievement, Paterno would’ve made Lincoln proud.
That’s why this has come as such a shock to all of us. That’s why our outrage and astonishment has been tempered with confusion. Penn State has never committed a major NCAA violaton. When all else failed, we could always take the moral high ground. Our successes haven’t been measured in Big Ten championships and Heisman Trophy winners, it’s been in Academic All-Americans and graduation rate.
And now, apparently, 62 years of good have been erased.
The reports have been coming in droves, from sources both reputable and dubious. What we know is that Paterno’s highly awaited press conference was unceremoniously cancelled, not by the man himself but by Graham Spanier. In an act of shocking timidity, Penn State backed away from the limelight. Perhaps they, like us, hoped that if they ignored the situation, it would just go away.
That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Because Mike McQueary told Paterno and Paterno told Curley and Curley told Schultz, and then those two told Spanier and meanwhile, lost in the chain of command, shelved in the name of bureaucracy, was simple human decency. This isn’t the fault of any one man, though some may bear a greater moral and legal culpability. This was a systemic failure.
And despite the legacy he’s left, Paterno is just another bureaucrat who needs to go before the university can move on. At least, that’s the only conclusion imaginable from the news we’ve all heard by now.
When the New York Times reports something, it’s almost certainly beyond the stage of speculation. When the New York Times tells you “time’s up,” it probably is. And when the New York Times reports that the wake of the allegations has caught up in it the career of college football’s greatest figure, then this is Joe Paterno’s last stand.
If the Times isn’t grasping at straws, it was changing attitudes in the Board of Trustees that decided his fate. If the reports from his son Scott–who’s been acting as something of a spokesman for the family–are to be believed, he wanted to take on Spanier head-on as the Paternos attempted to organize an off-campus press conference.
But in a final act of gutlessness, Penn State put the kibosh on that, too, ensuring that Joe would go out with a whimper. The man released a statement Sunday, but twice in one day was denied any chance to speak for himself. The only thing worse than parading out an octogenarian to answer for a school is to deny him the chance to do even that.
Half a decade ago, Paterno was holding on to his job for dear life, protecting himself not against any personal wrongdoings, but of a failure to live up to his stature on the football field. Penn State wasn’t winning, and the cries of “Joe Must Go” reverberated through the nation.
How ironic that now, his team is in the midst of a magical season, with an 8-1 record against all odds, playing these last three weeks for a chance at a Big Ten title, and those chants started back up again. Not from those at home, but from the voices around the nation. It’s going to be a scandal that takes down Paterno, one on an entirely different magnitude than anyone could have ever seen coming, and one that is just so anathema to the very concept of Joe Paterno.
To say that we are still processing this news is a vast understatement. Each new development in this story has come out before we’ve had an opportunity to digest the last piece of information. In the hour its taken me to write this, it’s become a palimpsest–written, then erased, changed, fixed, updated. But what’s clear is that the university has left this mess right at the feet of Paterno.
Perhaps that’s because they knew he was the only man who had it in him to handle himself with grace and poise. At least, reading the statements prepared by both him and Spanier, it’s clear that the latter is not a wartime president. The question now is whether he’s much of a president at all.
And so if Joe is made a scapegoat, so be it. If this is the end, maybe the hundreds of writers and anchors and newsmen will leave. Maybe we can return to normalcy here in Happy Valley, and begin to pick up the shattered pieces of our lives.
But maybe it will only be us who choose to celebrate the man Paterno is, and not vilify the man the media made him out to be.
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About the Author
After losing my father to cancer, I thought there was nothing THON could offer me that I didn’t already know. After four years, I found comfort in the familiar.
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