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Joe Paterno's Legacy: Protect Players At All Costs

Jul 3, 2012
Originally published on July 4, 2012 8:39 am

It is not facetious to say that dying may not have been the worst thing to happen to Joe Paterno this past year.

Has ever anyone in sport suffered such a tarnishing of his character in such a short period of time? Especially now as new allegations — exposed in leaked emails from other Penn State officials — suggest that the sainted JoePa was not merely passive when confronted with eyewitness evidence of Jerry Sandusky's pedophilia but was, in fact, an influential voice in deciding that Sandusky should not be reported to law enforcement.

It's interesting that from the very first, when it was understood that the coach had not responded with sufficient urgency, the prevailing question became: How will this affect Paterno's legacy? That was especially revealing of Paterno's reputation, because legacy is seldom a common point of debate in sport.

After all, defining legacy in sport is easy. It's simply measurable: How many touchdowns? How many wins? How many championships? Oh, a few athletes like Billie Jean King or Jackie Robinson do possess a genuine legacy, and there is no doubt that Paterno had gained a special esteem beyond his record.

Ironically, he had obtained this status because big-time college football is such a contradiction. On the one hand, it's the sport that is most glamorously a social part of our culture. College football is more than just a game — it's a weekend. Alumni return to campus for what? For homecoming. And homecoming is a football game. Football coaches are the maitres d' of college.

But, curiously, it is also understood that college football is, off the field, deceitful and corrupt. How strange this sweet home that we love. But that is why Paterno is supposed to have earned a legacy as well as a record, for he was held up as different — as an honest man succeeding in a dodgy enterprise.

He was of college football, but above it.

Everyone knows that the key to winning as a big-time coach is keeping your players eligible. Some of that effort is legal, some not. Give the players tutors and gut courses, or even have someone write term papers for them. Get the campus police and the local cops to cooperate. Hey, boys will be boys. Overlook. Blind eye. Forgive them their trespasses as game day approaches. Keep them eligible.

Joe Paterno was a football coach all of his long, adult life. Like all coaches, after a while, keeping your players eligible is second nature.

When his old assistant was in trouble, that must've kicked in. Joe Paterno kept Jerry Sandusky eligible. If he has a legacy, that's it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We hear now, as we do each Wednesday, from commentator Frank Deford. Today he considers the legacy of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, in light of the new allegations about his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: It is not facetious to say that dying may not have been the worst thing to have happened to Joe Paterno this past year. Has ever anyone in sport suffered such a tarnishing of their character in such a short period of time? Especially now as new allegations - exposed in leaked emails from other Penn State officials - suggest that the sainted JoPa was not merely passive when confronted with eyewitness evidence of Jerry Sandusky's pedophilia but was, in fact, the influential voice in deciding that Sandusky should not be reported to law enforcement.

It's interesting that from the very first, when it was understood that the coach had not responded with sufficient urgency, the prevailing question became: How will this affect Paterno's legacy? That was especially revealing of Paterno's reputation because legacy is seldom a common point of debate in sport. After all, defining legacy in sport is easy. It's simply measurable: How many touchdowns? How many wins? How many championships?

Oh, a few athletes like Billie Jean King or Jackie Robinson do possess a genuine legacy beyond the arena. And there is no doubt that, yes, Paterno had gained a special esteem. Ironically, though, he had obtained this status because big-time college football is such a contradiction. On the one hand, it's the sport that is most glamorously a social part of our culture.

College football is more than just a game. It's a weekend. Alumni return to campus - for what? For homecoming. And homecoming is a football game. Football coaches are the maitre d's of college. But curiously, it's also understood that college football is off the field deceitful and corrupt. How strange this sweet home that we love.

But that is why Paterno is supposed to have earned a legacy as well as a record, for he was held up as different, as an honest man succeeding in a dodgy enterprise. He was of college football but above it.

Everyone knows that the key to winning as a big-time coach is keeping your players eligible. Some of that effort is legal, some not. Give the players tutors and gut courses. Or even have someone write term papers for them. Get the campus police and the local cops to cooperate. Hey, hey, boys will be boys. Overlook, blind eye, forgive them their trespasses as game day approaches. Keep them eligible.

Joe Paterno was a football coach all his long adult life. Like all coaches, after a while keeping your players eligible is second nature. When his old assistant was in trouble, that must've kicked in. Joe Paterno kept Jerry Sandusky eligible. If he has a legacy, that's it.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday from WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. His most recent book is a memoir, "Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.