Joe Paterno's death on Sunday should have been greeted with waves of national sorrow and heartfelt praise for a wildly successful college football coach who ran a clean, ethical program for an astounding 46 years.
“Joe Pa” is truly an iconic figure who stood like a colossus over the college grid-iron, comparable to such legendary figures as Knute Rockne and Paul 'Bear' Bryant.
However, despite all those years of achievement and good deeds, Paterno's name will forever be associated – or, perhaps a better word would be 'stained' – by one of the ugliest, most sordid scandals the U.S. sporting world has ever witnessed.
Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's long-time assistant coach, is accused of sexually abusing several young boys over the years. Sandusky (who maintains his innocence) is facing a litany of egregious charges.
At best, Paterno knew nothing about Sandusky's vile activities (making the coach look dumb); at worst, he was fully aware of it and did nothing to report him to the police – making him complicit in Sandusky's (alleged) horrible crimes.
Either way, Paterno's name is tarnished – perhaps irredeemably.
This is a tragedy, Paterno has said about the scandal. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.
That was a rather lame and tepid response.
The public is willing to put up with certain “eccentricities” among their sporting heroes (as long as they are successful).
For example, college basketball coach Bobby Knight is notorious for his wickedly abusive treatment of his players; his feuds with other coaches and the media; and his all-around insane, mentally unstable behavior.
But even his fiercest detractors would concede that Knight was a great coach, always ran clean programs, and demanded academic accountability from his players (the latter being quite a rare quality in the corrupt, money-fueled swamp of college sports).
More importantly, bad behavior and vulgar language aside. Knight (to the best of my knowledge) has never committed a felony, nor facilitated criminal behavior in others. In fact, Knight often kicked players who committed infractions (absence from class, drug use, etc.) off his team. Indeed, he was a one-man coach, teacher, tough guy, disciplinarian, policeman.
Knight's legacy is unusual in that it includes his many episodes of wretched behavior – but this hasn't undermined his accomplishments in the game. Even his worst critics (and they are legion) have unearthed nothing criminal in Knight's long public life.
Interestingly, Paterno was in many ways the 'anti-Knight.' With his thick-rimmed glasses, homely face, big nose, and unstylish windbreaker jackets, Paterno wasn't exactly charismatic or colorful. He was, in fact, low-key, quiet, modest and shunned publicity and the limelight – although he was just authoritarian as Knight. In fact, Penn State's motto was “success with honor.”
And what of Paterno's future legacy?
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was recently quoted as saying: [Joe] will go down as the greatest football coach in the history of the game.
Coach Meyer is only half-right – Paterno was indeed one of history's coaching elite. But the stench of the ongoing child-sex horror will also accompany his name for eternity. Something as grave as this cannot be erased (even if Paterno himself did not commit the acts Sandusky is accused of).
Consider some of the high-profile criminal scandals in U.S. sports in recent years.
When Kobe Bryant retires in a few years, he will likely be named one of the ten greatest players in NBA history and arguably the best Los Angeles Laker of all-time.
But Bryant will also be remembered for allegations of having committed rape in Colorado during the off-season summer of 2003. Although he was not convicted and resumed his career, many people (including me) believe he was guilty and was saved from decades in prison due to his fame and wealth.
No matter what he does for the remainder of his life, a large portion of the American public think Kobe raped a young woman and got away with it.
Granted, thousands of other athletes have also been accused of rape, so Kobe's alleged actions are hardly unusual, But he is also one of the most well-known, prominent athletes on the planet – in this case, his high-profile serves to hurt him immeasurably.
Moreover, when O.J. Simpson dies (likely within the next ten years), what will “The Juice” be most remembered for? His stellar career at USC? His Hall of Fame career in the NFL? His record-breaking 2000-yard season with the Buffalo Bills? His many TV commercials and goofy movie cameo appearances?
Indeed not, OJ's legacy was sealed by a terrible night in the summer of 1994 when his ex-wife and her friend were found brutally murdered.
That incident was of such great magnitude – and with O.J's fame already enormous even before – that he will always be associated with it (yes, even if he really was innocent).
I admit Paterno's case is vastly different from Kobe and Simpson, Paterno himself was not accused of committing crimes, nor did he live long enough to face any charges in court. But if he allowed Sandusky to repeatedly molest young boys for a period of 15 years, then Paterno is indirectly responsible for allowing such evil acts to perpetuate.
Legal scholars are best qualified to determine Paterno's true culpability and complicity – the broader public is far less tolerant.
Moreover, short of murder, the sexual exploitation of children is regarded as the most heinous of crimes all around the world. Even in prisons, child-killers and child-rapists are vilified and considered the lowest of the low.
This is what really separates the Penn State/Paterno/Sandusky saga from all other sports scandals – pedophilia.
As awful as it might be to say, if a group of Penn State football players were accused of, say, raping women in their dormitories, the fallout would not be as bad as the Sandusky affair.
Sadly, this ugly scandal will be Paterno's everlasting legacy.