Admiring, respecting, and cheering for Joe Paterno became a lot more complicated in the last years of his life. For my entire life, I had looked at Joe Paterno as a symbol of all that was right with college sports: loyalty and tradition, a focus on academics and personal development, and excellence on the field. It was so easy to root for Penn State since their players did not get in trouble, they embodied selfless teamwork with their plain white uniforms and they pulverized opponents with good old-fashioned smashmouth football.
Then, suddenly, everything got crazy and the idea of rooting for Joe Paterno became a whole lot murkier. When Jerry Sandusky was accused and eventually convicted of horrendous sexual crimes against children, it became unclear how much Paterno and other Penn State administrators may have known. Our country’s media scrutinized the Penn State “football culture” and the shine of Joe Paterno as a coaching legend was now marred considerably. I remember questioning whether Paterno should have done more, but I was still a bit shocked when he was fired. I honestly was unsure whether the Penn State Board made the correct decision.
Now, after reading Joe Posnaski’s book about Paterno, I am struck by new new observations about the longtime Penn State coach. First, it is obvious that Paterno was not perfect, and that some players greatly disliked him while playing for the Nittany Lions. It is also obvious, however, that Paterno did impact the lives of his players long after their playing days were over. Secondly, I now believe that Paterno was a scapegoat. While he certainly could have done more, Paterno deserved better than a dismissal via telephone call after more than a century of leadership at Penn State.
The tragedy of the situation was highlighted by a question Paterno’s nephew asked: “Dad, does this mean we won’t be Penn State fans anymore?” The childhood innocence in this question is so striking. This young man wanted nothing more than to cheer for his favorite football team, but the horrible actions of one adult, and the questionable actions of another group of adults had now complicated this simplistic idealism of Happy Valley.