Joe Paterno looms over Happy Valley like a monolith.
To the students who don’t know him personally, he is less a man than a symbol of success for their university, and an icon to rally around. To some players, he is a rock of support who teaches them integrity and the winning spirit.
According to a former Penn State University faculty member I spoke with, other players are scared to death of him. Though he’s physically smaller in his old age, his legend has grown to fill every corner of the campus.
But it’s time to separate the man from the myth. The recent revelations about Jerry Sandusky remind us that Paterno also come of age in an era of saving face and handling your own problems. Issues such as child abuse and domestic violence were little more than the stuff of neighborhood gossip until the 1970’s.
Tradition has always been one of Paterno’s strengths, but it’s apparent now that he and the Penn State organization that is designed to protect and support him have maintained too much of this traditional mindset to pass muster in this era.
This tragic story has followed the same script as so many other institutional failures. Everybody sticks to the claim of having done their part and no more, hoping that none of the observers take a step back and realize that all of the parts were never designed to make up a whole solution to the problem.
Paterno is just one of many parts of the problem, and though he likely won’t be the one to feel the legal ramifications (which is most certainly not a coincidence), this is his legacy. Joe Paterno is Penn State football, and Penn State football is Joe Paterno. This story of irresponsibility and neglect is a part of him now, and will remain on campus as long as he does.
Men make mistakes, errors in judgment that allow predators like Jerry Sandusky to roam free for years. Myths grow more perfect with each passing day, inspiring generations. If Joe Paterno loves Penn State as much as he claims to, it’s time for the man to step away right now rather than play out the rest of the season.