JoePa: The legacy beyond the legend of Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno

Former Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno

They buried former Penn State Head Football Coach Joe Paterno in Pennsylvania this past week. JoePa the Coach was forced from his position last fall due to allegations around improper sexual activities between a football assistant and underage boys. JoePa the Phenomenon never quite moved off the front page or out of vision of his loyal followers, even as he battled lung cancer the last several months.

Growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, it wasn’t just death and taxes that were an absolute certainty, but also Penn State football with Joe Paterno. For nearly half a century, Paterno drove the Penn State football machine, with a big impact on the Keystone state. Major events and lives were scheduled around the Penn State schedule. More than even professional sports, Nittany Lions football defined Pennsylvania.

The old joke was the difference between Joe Paterno and God is that God doesn’t necessarily think he’s Joe Paterno. If Paterno was the deity, then Penn State football was the cathedral at which his loyal army of followers worshiped each fall weekend. They gave JoePa adoration and adulation and he in turn delivered outstanding results on the football field.

The details of exactly who knew what and told whom when are still to be worked out. It appears Paterno notified the university administration of the issue, but then allowed his assistant, Sandusky, to remain in a position where the behavior could continue. Was that enough? Not if the abuse continued. Not if you are committed to running one of the premier football programs in the country.

Much has been made of Paterno’s winning record and his stewardship of a program that was never hit by allegations of impropriety or wrongdoing, even as other top programs suffered NCAA sanctions.

Yet it appears that the young men who were abused were sacrificed to avoid any blemish on the Penn State football program. The end and the means were reversed and now, years later, the result is not just the arrest of Sandusky, but the disgrace of Paterno at the end of a long, successful career.

Over the last several months we’ve learned of former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s issues with sexual harassment charges and allegations of long-term extra-marital affairs, and of allegations of abuse by a Syracuse assistant basketball coach. These incidents come after the painful revelations of decades of molestation by young boys at the hands of the priests who were supposed to protect them in the Catholic Church.

What’s common is the pattern: Men in power taking advantage of people who trusted them, and the system protecting the status quo.

Whether the individuals charged were coaches, business executives, or priests, the trappings of power and prestige let these events go on much too long. On a systemic basis, we need a better way to deal with these issues: when they occur, as well as when they’re uncovered, and to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

I don’t believe Joe Paterno ever condoned the sexual behavior of his assistant, but his failure to take action legitimized the activities and allowed them to continue for much too long. Edmund Burke said, “All that’s necessary for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing.”

Joe Paterno was a good man who unfortunately chose to do if nothing, not enough. His legacy includes this sad footnote to an outstanding career…let’s hope it will serve as a great lesson moving forward.

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