I come from a place where college football is a religion. No other sport so well blends distinctly American themes like courage, glorified violence, fierce tribal loyalties, and victory in the face of certain defeat. I believe the absence of football from USF contributes to the lack of a cohesive identity within the university community.
Penn State University, located in the town of State College, PA, lacks neither a football team nor an identity.
This week has seen the fall of a once-invincible icon of the sport. Joe Paterno started working as an assistant coach at Penn State in 1950. In 1966, he became head football coach, a position he held until Wednesday of last week.
For sixty-one years, he stood for what was noble and right in a greedy and corrupt culture, winning more games then any other coach at his level. His players didn’t take money on the side, graduated on time, and “played the game the way it was supposed to be played.”
Earlier this month, a former assistant of Paterno’s, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with sexually abusing several young boys over the course of two decades. In 2002, a graduate assistant witnessed Sandusky abusing a boy in the team’s shower room. He reported this to Coach Paterno, who in turn, notified his superiors in the University’s athletic department and administration.
At no point was this incident reported to the police, child services, or the parents of the victim. Sandusky remained a respected member of the community and program for nine more years.
Legally, it appears that Joe Paterno satisfied his obligation. But as the unquestioned high priest of Penn State’s empire of clean play, he fell far short of his own high standards.
The firing of Joe Paterno by Penn State’s Board of Trustees is the only way his carrier could end. Just before being fired, he had promised to retire after the final three games of this season. Many fans and the student body feel that, owing to his decades of service and sustained success, the great man should have been allowed to go out with at least a shred of dignity, on his own terms.
Joe Paterno spent five decades preaching the values of teamwork and collective responsibility. He had a duty to protect the boys who fell victim to Jerry Sandusky after he became aware of his tendencies. While the “legal obligation” defense might absolve a lesser man, the great Joe Paterno long ago aspired to a higher ideal.
Every part of this sorry affair is a tragedy: The tainted legacy of living legend, the broken shield of a once proud program, and most of all, the forever altered lives of the alleged victims.
Many will continue to protest the ignominious end of Paterno. They will shift the blame to the negligent administrators, the reputation-shielding trustees, and of course, the actual abuser. Yet all the years of excellence and integrity and the legions of loyal fans and players cannot absolve Joe Paterno for his silence in the face of evil. We are only as great as our last act.