Commentary: Paterno's legacy soiled by Sandusky scandal

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno talks to the media and a crowd of students outside of his home in State College, Pennsylvania.
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno talks to the media and a crowd of students outside of his home in State College, Pennsylvania. Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/MCT

The almost unspeakable scandal enveloping Penn State University locks in a different perspective, requires a reconsidering, alters the prism through which we view sports and judge what terrible means.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did that in an obviously and enormously broader sense, putting games in their shrunken place. Season-ending knee injuries suddenly stopped being “tragedies” and long losing streaks “disasters” when you could watch the real-life versions of those changing lives, changing America, changing everything.

On a smaller scale confined closer to the orbit of sports, what’s happening in the now gruesomely misnamed Happy Valley — the scandal that led to the firing Wednesday night of legend Joe Paterno — is profound enough in its own way to change the default vantage point from which we see things.

Before this week, for example, it was easy to think of the ongoing NBA lockout as a real shame. It isn’t. It’s just rich people fighting over who gets how much (as they continued to do, ad nauseum, Wednesday night). Fans get disappointed, but nobody gets hurt. Nobody gets scarred.

It was easy to see what has become of the Dolphins as a shame, too, right? It isn’t. Nothing about a 1-7 record or a decade’s mismanaged decline begins to meet the definition the way these allegations and repercussions out of State College, Pa., do.

Penn State can tell you what shame is.

Shame is that a prominent former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, stands charged with felony sexual crimes against eight young boys over many years, some allegedly while he was a coach there, some occurring on campus.

Shame is that the adults in charge didn’t do enough, if anything, to stop it. A Penn State vice president and athletic director already have been forced to resign. Now the great football coach, Paterno, beloved “Joe Pa,” announced Wednesday he will retire at season’s end only to be fired hours later as the volume of the outrage grew.

Never has a coach of Paterno’s accomplishment been abruptly fired, let alone amid such blooming, sordid scandal. This might be the story of the year in sports, partly because it seeps like sewage beyond the boundaries of sports.

Paterno, before the weekend’s dumbfounding revelations, was the winningest football coach in NCAA Division 1 history. He still is. Except now that hardly matters. Now his epitaph is sealed, and it will be his sad response to the Sandusky scandal:

“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

As Richard Nixon’s obituary inevitably mentioned Watergate foremost, so will the summary of Paterno’s career mention what has stained the winter of his life – something so great that even a perhaps peripheral role in it is damning.

It happens, sometimes. A scandal becomes what defines you, the rest of your life relegated to the asterisk.

Fair or not, anybody who ever graduated from Penn State has seen dirt thrown on his diploma.

A graduate-assistant coach (now the fulltime receivers coach) said he witnessed Sandusky in a locker-room shower having anal intercourse with a boy thought to be 10, and (instead of stopping the attack) later informed Paterno. The old coach has admitted he was told of “something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky.”

Paterno told his boss. Not enough, not nearly. The chain of command then failed miserably.

And the words echo pathetically. “I wish I had done more”

Now Paterno is forced out even though an ongoing successful season might have otherwise seen him continue to coach, even at age 84.

At Florida State, age and a few too many losses eased out Bobby Bowden before he would have liked. Oh, but wouldn’t Paterno trade places right now!

The thing is, this isn’t about Paterno – and certainly not about him in a way that would engender outrage over his departure. (Sympathy is enough a stretch). This is about one man – Sandusky, if the charges are true – and a whole system that failed the young boys who allegedly were abused.

This is the college football version of the pedophile priests who have broadly scandalized the Catholic Church, shaking faith.

Inevitably, talk of Paterno’s replacement already has begun.

Inevitably, too, it includes University of Miami coach Al Golden, a Penn State player and captain in the late 1980s and early ‘90s and a defensive assistant coach there in 2000, just after Sandusky left.

Golden and former Florida Gators coach Urban Meyer seem to be the early favorites to replace Paterno next year, based entirely on speculation.

Golden of course says he is happy in Miami and is loath to publicly discuss whether he might leave – let alone this week as his team prepares to play Saturday at rival Florida State. It is believed his contract would allow a bailout after this season as Miami faces likely NCAA sanctions in the Nevin Shapiro scandal that fell into his innocent lap.

Opposite opinions are open to fair debate.

I tend to think Penn State’s scandal – which is unlikely to lead to NCAA penalties but surely has severely damaged the school’s good name and will damage recruiting – would make that job less attractive to Golden.

Others think the job opening itself, and the opportunity to ride in on a metaphoric white horse and help rescue his alma mater’s reputation, might be enticing.

Meantime, what has befallen Penn State also changes perspective, at least for me, on how we consider NCAA improprieties such as the ones that have the Hurricanes under continuing investigation.

Canes or Nittany Lions? You’d rather be a fan of which team right now? Which program has brought you more embarrassment? More shame?

Forget NCAA penalties.

Penn State’s shame is greater, and hugely.

Run-of-the mill NCAA violations – whether it is Ohio State’s guys getting free tattoos or some Hurricanes partying gratis on Shapiro’s yacht – seem trivially harmless now, almost quaint, when juxtaposed with the truly shocking, criminal scandal that is jarring Penn State.

Maybe UM faces harsh sanctions, reduced scholarships and a tough patch ahead for not having the “administrative oversight” to stop a renegade booster.

There are far worse things in the world, though.

There are far worse men to not stop.

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