Since he passed away on Sunday morning, writers everywhere have taken it upon themselves to define Joe Paterno’s “legacy.”
Was he a bedrock of integrity? A coward? A fraud?
I’m not going to pretend that I’m equipped to tell you whether the good outweighed the bad in Paterno’s life. In the last few days, I’ve certainly come across plenty of points to ponder in the writings of some of our finest scribes. I’ll leave that project to them.
However, after seeing the outporing of grief over JoePa’s passing, I feel reaffirmed that the well-worn cliche “Joe Paterno is Penn State” is unequivocally accurate.
You’d have a tough time finding one person more inextricably linked to a major institution in this country than Paterno is to Penn State. The Penn State community – and many outside of it – have mourned the loss in a manner usually reserved for royalty. But Paterno was more than a king. He embodied an ethos.
Whether Penn State was cast in Paterno’s image or vice versa, the two have been coterminous for decades. And for as much good as Paterno did off the field, he wouldn’t have had those opportunities had he not have brought 400-plus wins and multiple national championships along with him.
Paterno, school, football – Penn State’s version of the Holy Trinity.
The fact that football is inextricably linked to the the Penn State brand does not make it unique. However, few schools have managed to leverage their success on the gridiron like PSU, along with the coach who oversaw it. In the time Paterno was head coach, Penn State evolved from something of a backwater school into a flagship institution within the American educational system. The rallying point for all involved during that ascendancy: Paterno and his guys in the exquisitely simple blue and white unis.
In death, Paterno has been celebrated as much for his dedication to his players and his contributions to the Penn State community as his accomplishments on the field. His players enjoyed a remarkably high graduation rate for a major college football team. He donated loads of his own money to the school to build educational facilities, not athletic ones. His sterling reputation and popularity made him a dynamite fundraiser, too.
Without its coach and football, it’s hard to see Penn State ever flourishing in the way that it has.
But even as we honor what Paterno himself did for his school, we should recognize the unintended legacy that he and other titans of college sports have left us.
We have long passed the point where sports (read: football and men’s basketball) on college campuses simply function as part of the academic experience. College administrators understand that success on the field of play can be translated into a boost in the Q-rating. They also understand the intoxicating power of winning on deep-pocketed boosters and television networks.
Once you go down that path, it’s easy to see how coaches’ salaries can start to explode, while faculty members face pay cuts and layoffs. Presidents eventually spend as much time negotiating conference affiliation as they do reviewing curriculum. Teams get stocked with marquee pro prospects who hide out in token majors, lacking the academic background and approval from coaches to navigate the typical course load.
And as we saw at Penn State, sports can grow into a law unto themselves. Whether or not Paterno and the Penn State administration might have covered up allegations of sexual abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to protect the football program, there’s no denying that Paterno wielded an inordinate amount of power at the school. He demanded a special set of rules for his players. When he feared that he wouldn’t get his way, he even took the drastic step of threatening to stop doing the fundraising for which he was so admired.
As much as we fans may love college sports, our educational system was never intended to house major athletics as we know them today. Far too often, the tail is wagging the dog at the expense of educating students, and Paterno and his contemporaries helped pave the way for the transformation of college football into a billion-dollar minor league for the NFL.
Paterno left a complex and, ultimately, contradictory legacy. It’s fitting that while he demonstrated such a strong commitment to academics, he unwittingly helped undermine higher education in the process.
As we honor the life he lived, we should take the opportunity to ask what we can do to make that right.