Being A Legendary Football Coach Doesn’t Make You A Good Person, So Let’s Stop Whitewashing Joe Paterno’s Legacy

joe paterno

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A day after his death, a consensus has emerged: Joe Paterno was a great man whose legacy of good deeds was blemished by a single moral failing in 2002.The institutional cover-up of alleged child sexual abuse at Penn State is the lone blight on his otherwise remarkable life. The scandal is a footnote in the biography of a hero.

This, simply put, is crap.

The scandal is the defining aspect of Paterno’s career.

It took Paterno six decades to build Penn State from a small agricultural school into an world-renowned university with a burning love for football. And it took one tragic scandal to show how flawed that Paterno-built ecosystem was.

All death is sad, but it’s not cause to promulgate a whitewashed narrative about Paterno. Merely dying shouldn’t be enough to redeem a person.

Paterno won a lot of games, and was pivotal to the successful careers of hundreds of people. He also was, by all accounts, a decent guy.

But amplifying those aspects of his character drowns out the utter horror that Paterno was (at some level) aware of, and failed to stop for nearly a decade.

Here’s a sampling of how Paterno is being remembered:

From Ivan Maisel in ESPN’s flagship obituary about Paterno: “The scandal has cast a shadow over a brilliant coaching life. But even the darkest of eclipses are temporary.”

From Dan Wetzel in Yahoo!’s flagship obituary about Paterno: “Paterno reached too many, taught too many, inspired too many. And for years and seasons, for decades and generations to come, those that drew from his wisdom will pass it on and on. That will be his most lasting legacy.”

LeBron James: “He was great man!!”

At Penn State, a massive memorial including a newspaper with the scribbled headline, “Killed By Trustees.”

In the mad dash to make sure Paterno is not remembered as just the face of a child sexual abuse scandal, people have downplayed the scandal. They’ve promoted the same Paterno myth that existed before the Jerry Sandusky debacle, and simply refused to incorporate the scandal into the Great Man — instead keeping it as a self-contained aside that will slowly fade away.