Joe Paterno died Sunday morning, and he left the world after a span of less than three months in which we witnessed his downfall, the scandal that rocked the Penn State community and Paterno’s rapidly failing health.
His death, as does any, leaves us with questions. While he was not a mystery, his final days were shrouded. In an interview that ran last week in the Washington Post, he admitted this much:
But after 61 years on the campus, Paterno cleared out his office in the space of one day. It was an end he was unprepared for. Yet it came with the realization that as the face of the university, people assign him greater responsibility than other officials.
“Whether it’s fair I don’t know, but they do it,” he said. “You would think I ran the show here.”
Will his abbreviated final season at Penn State – a result of the child abuse sex scandal that centers on former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and all of the deception involved in the scandal – mar his legacy?
Was what he told Sally Jenkins the truth? Was he blissfully unaware? Did he have too many other things to worry about than handling something himself? Or did he not know the whole truth and not know exactly what to do when approached by Mike McQueary with information regarding a heinous crime?
Joe Paterno was not a martyr. And he was not a victim. But he was culpable in his own role of the fall of Penn State football, because he had the power to stop the sexual abuse of children at the hands of Jerry Sandusky. He had the power to cement his role – and his worth – as one of the greatest college coaches … but he chose to pass the buck.
For the time being, this may be how we remember Joe Paterno. It’s still fresh in our minds.
And at the same time, he was a certain legend in college football, an innovator, a traditionalist, a winner and a leader with standards. Sometimes, you wondered if Joe Paterno was bigger than Penn State itself.
He was ceremoniously taken away from football, from the routine he followed every weekend for more than 60 years. Did he ultimately die of a broken heart? Or was his health – he died of lung cancer, and suffered a broken hip in his final three months of life – secondary to what meant so much to him?
How will we choose to remember Joe Paterno? As a college football pioneer? Or as an enabler?
Are you going to consider the standard he set?
Will you take a few minutes give him and his family some dignity? Or will you immediately spit on his grave?