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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Leader? Legend?

The two words above name the divisions of the Big Ten conference, and as we reflect on the life of Joe Paterno, many will question if he was both or neither.

I will say up front that my ties to Penn State and Joe Paterno are tangential and few. I grew up in Delaware, where Penn State is often the default major college program, and as a fan of the sport of college football, Paterno was clearly on my radar. Until late last season, Paterno was nearly universally regarded as a paragon of the sport, espousing a sort of old school leadership that may very well be the last of its kind. In an age where coaches go on a whim wherever their wallets take them, Paterno spent 45 years as head coach at Penn State. It was widely believed that whenever he retired or passed away, he would be widely celebrated.

Late last season, Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant coach, was alleged to have committed what now amounts to over 50 reprehensible cases of sexual abuse of a minor. It quickly came out that Joe Paterno had been informed at some point and did relatively little to ensure Sandusky was brought to justice or even keep him away from the program. For this action--or rather, inaction--Paterno's legacy changed very quickly. He was removed unceremoniously from his coaching position, his name was stricken from the yet-to-be-awarded Big Ten Championship trophy, And many who had lionized the career of the head Nittany Lion were now rebuking him. Sadly, before we could even begin to make sense of this complex situation, Paterno passed away at the age of 85 two months later, leaving many confused as to how I feel about his legacy. A couple of well thought out responses are available here by Bomani Jones and here by Pete Pereira.

As for me, it is my belief that one can condemn Paterno for his inaction while at the same time celebrating his achievements and what he meant to the world of college football, Penn State, and those with whom he interacted personally. I wrote something shortly after the death of Michael Jackson, and if I may quote myself, with regards to his great career and his alleged improprieties with minors: One of these facts does not excuse the other, but just as importantly, one of these facts does not render the other irrelevant.

When all is said and done, I think Joe Paterno will be remembered as a man who did a lot of things right and at least one thing horribly, horribly wrong. Such will be his complicated legacy.

Rest in peace, Joe Paterno.
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