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ESPN Documentary Offers Expectedly Inconclusive Look At Paterno’s Legacy

Editor’s note: The following review was written after watching a screener cut of E60’s “The Paterno Legacy” provided to select media this week. ESPN says parts of the documentary may slightly change before airing on April 18, noting that the film is still in production.

When ESPN announced this spring that it would produce a retrospective documentary analyzing the rise and fall of Joe Paterno, Penn Staters everywhere likely groaned in protest.

Once again, 10 years after the events unfolded, national reporters and filmmakers were set to examine the fallout of Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse scandal. More specifically, the E60 team sought to analyze the current legacy of Paterno — the legendary former Penn State football coach whose name alone can still spark debates among a crowd.

Throughout the roughly 45-minute documentary, ESPN’s team doesn’t meaningfully explore Paterno’s legacy, instead offering brief interviews with key figures and metaphorical shoulder shrugs when tasked with answering any lingering questions. Although “The Paterno Legacy” is well made and deeply sourced, it fails to offer new information that would help viewers at home ponder Paterno’s place at Penn State today.

Nearly half of “The Paterno Legacy” summarizes the Sandusky scandal and its lasting effects, including the state’s initial prosecution, Sandusky’s quick trial, and Paterno’s firing and decline in health. While the production value is high, the beginning of ESPN’s documentary tells a familiar story we’ve seen many times before: Joe Paterno was revered, the Sandusky scandal broke, and Penn State suffered in disgrace. 

As “The Paterno Legacy” spends most of its time rehashing the same tale we’ve heard for a decade on end, it does so through some brief but fresh perspectives. We hear directly from former President Graham Spanier, for example, who reflects on the tumultuous period of Penn State’s past, all while having an ankle monitor strapped on under his dress pants. Other interviews with Gary Schultz, Penn State’s former vice president, and Aaron Fisher, the first victim to speak out against Sandusky’s abuse, add a bit of context, too. Each interview is short, and you’d likely be hard-pressed to find many new details to latch on to if you’re even briefly familiar with the high-profile case. Their words are meaningful, though, and to hear them speak directly about the scandal is a rare occurrence — especially when Spanier and Schultz both say they regret not acting on initial reports of Sandusky’s abuses. However, little substance in the film’s interviews sheds light on anything new.

Other tidbits within the documentary, although entertaining, repeat storylines we know ad nauseam. Through a phone call from his Pennsylvania prison, Sandusky himself speaks with an ESPN reporter and maintains his innocence. We see clips of Joe Paterno’s statue being removed from Beaver Stadium’s doorstep. We watch repeated shots of students rioting following Paterno’s fateful firing, once again opening wounds that scarred many more than a decade ago. One section of the film even briefly touches on the landmark Freeh Report — the independent investigation commissioned by Penn State in 2012 that suggested university higher-ups, including Paterno, willfully covered up Sandusky’s abuse. Since the report’s release, it’s been widely criticized both for its conclusions and methodology. 

Throughout the documentary’s second half, interview subjects are repeatedly asked the same question: “How do you define Joe Paterno’s legacy?” While some offer harsh stances and others praise the longtime Nittany Lions leader, it’s clear that there is, perhaps, no correct answer. With that in mind, it’s unclear exactly what ESPN set out to accomplish by producing “The Paterno Legacy”. By and large, the film doesn’t seek to definitively categorize Paterno as a “saint or sinner”, as Tom Kline, an attorney for Sandusky’s victims, says throughout the production. ESPN’s team outsources that job to the documentary’s many guests who each bring a different answer to the table.

Former Penn State players like Matt Millen and Matt McGloin say the lessons they learned from Paterno — working hard, being “good people,” and so on — will stick with them forever. Fans in Beaver Stadium’s tailgate lots last fall praised the “house that Joe built” and noted that he helped put Penn State on the map. Even media pundits like Bob Costas note that the Sandusky scandal shouldn’t entirely tarnish Paterno’s work as one of the greatest coaches of all time. All the while, some Penn State students scoff at the mention of Paterno’s name, noting they can’t support the late coach out of respect for Sandusky’s victims.

Perhaps the meandering nature of “The Paterno Legacy” is indicative of Paterno’s legacy itself. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never definitively find a one-size-fits-all method to approach the late coach’s accomplishments at Penn State. There will always be staunch supporters and harsh critics. Fans will always wear “409” t-shirts and party with cardboard cutouts of Paterno at their tailgates. At the same time, others will always seek to move on from the Paterno era to focus on the Penn State of today. 

More than a decade later, it’s clear that no one can ultimately summarize how Paterno’s legacy should be viewed. For as long as Sandusky’s conviction stands, Paterno’s lasting impact on Penn State will be questioned. Sandusky’s legal team is now appealing to a federal court and seeking a new trial, but after a few unsuccessful attempts at the state level, the chances of a turnaround seem slim at best. At the conclusion of ESPN’s documentary, a statement from Penn State confirmed that the university still has no plans to resurrect Paterno’s statue or produce any “additional honors” for the late coach.

We don’t need any more documentaries about Paterno or Sandusky. As things stand, the stories have been told. For once, we might need to move forward with the notion that Penn Staters may never get the closure some seek — certainly not from a 45-minute ESPN documentary that merely scratches the surface of a complex conundrum.

How you perceive Paterno likely won’t change once the credits roll on E60’s production. Paterno’s legacy is Penn State, and Penn Staters will always view that on their own terms.

E60’s “The Paterno Legacy” will premiere at 8 p.m. on Monday, April 18, on ESPN and ESPN+.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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