It’s only after someone dies that you learn how that person lived. The obituaries and the commentaries from the people who knew that person offer a final perspective.It has been that way for Joe Paterno this week. There’s the expected summary of his stellar coaching career at Penn State, testimonials from his former players and reactions from friends and family.
Yet among the obligatory respectful praise consistent with most obituaries is the overriding shadow of the Penn State child abuse scandal. He died before sufficient time had passed on the controversy that could have offered a more sanguine long-view perspective.
The debate still rages hot over his role in Jerry Sandusky’s alleged children’s sexual abuse. He departed still stained by it, which invariably plays a significant role in his legacy.
Sandusky is a former Penn State coach and his friend for nearly a half century. In 2002, Paterno was told by a witness that he saw Sandusky’s sexually abusing a young boy. Paterno passed along the information to the upper campus. He did not follow up. He moved on. He did not deal with Sandusky in an effective manner.
The allegations are that the abuse continued but Paterno, the most powerful man in Happy Valley, was not an instrument for change. In many people’s eyes, he carried the blame for all those kids abused after he knew what was going on.
That’s the debate, how much he did know and what else he could have done to protect the children in his community. Those children are scarred for life while he went on to earn millions and accept all the accolades of a football coach over this last decade.
“It is one of the great sorrows of my life,” said Paterno in his final interview earlier this month. “I wish I had done more.”
Everybody does. 20/20 hindsight. It too late. It amounts to nothing now.
Paterno has been lauded for his emphasis on academics. The graduation numbers for his program always have been above the national average. He was generous with his time and money, donating more than $4 million to the university over the years.
But the scandal has obscured his good works to the point that a plan to award him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom was withdrawn. His name was taken off the Big 12’s championship trophy and the Maxwell Club discontinued its Joseph V. Paterno Award for coaches who made a positive impact in the community.
For me, I believe that Paterno loved to be exalted at his job, so much so that he didn’t want that unseemly Sandusky mess to jeopardize his status, his coaching records or his salary. So he pushed it aside, believing it had nothing to do with him, and let others deal with it – even though his very status could have made the difference had he been more responsible.
At this point, I think there is one thing that his family can do to repair some of his late-in-life damaged reputation. It should make a generous donation to charities that protect children. If the family can donate $4 million to the university, it can make a meaningful contribution for organizations that prioritize children.
The university relieved Paterno of his position just days after the Sandusky arrest, which turned the campus into a national sensation – not in a good way. But it’s 10 years too late. Conceivably, Sandusky could have been arrested in 2002 and Paterno, who did little to stop it then, could have been fired at the same time.
That’s 10-years salary, and some would argue unmerited salary. The family should put it into helping victims. It’s the least they can do and I think Paterno would approve.