In the Wake of Joe Paterno's Death, Don't Heap Praise On a Vile Man


Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died at 85 on Sunday, after succumbing to lung cancer.

In 2011, the same year Paterno became the winningest coach in Division I NCAA football history, the Nittany Lions coach saw his life and 46-year career explode as the college football world was rocked by sex scandal involving Paterno and his team. The sex scandal would prove to be one which Paterno could have prevented.

 “JoePa,” as Paterno is affectionately known, is already being memorialized. On Facebook, the Penn State Football group page posted this image honoring Paterno, a picture that in just three hours spawned over 8,000 shares and counting.

Paterno, though, does not deserve this praise. The coach’s actions and inactions, which are being documented in the on-going Sandusky sex scandal trial, highlight a disgusting sports culture that runs rampant in American society — a culture our society does nothing to curb.

Paterno was a great coach. But he was an awful person for his involvement in the Sandusky sex scandal. In any eulogy for the former Penn State coach, this fact should trump all others.

In early November, news broke that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had allegedly sexually abused a number of young boys while working under Paterno. In one 2002 instance in particular, it was reported that Sandusky sodomized a young boy in the Penn State locker room showers, an incident that was witnessed by then-Penn State graduate assistant and current Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary. McQueary apparently delayed telling authorities about the incident, and when he finally did, he told Paterno first. Paterno then further delayed telling school administrators what had gone on, highlighting as a reason that he didn’t want to ruin anybody’s weekend plans.

A sports culture that sought on-field wins above anything else at Penn State prevented justice being served to Sandusky, Paterno, and others in a timely fashion. McQueary told Paterno, who told the school’s athletic director, who told the school’s assistant president, who told the school president — all of whom failed to contact police. For almost a decade the incident went unreported to proper authorities. When authorities did finally arrest those involved in the incident, Paterno was fired by the school’s board of trustees.

Anger swept the Penn State community, not because a number of young boys had been sexually assaulted, but because their beloved JoePa was now without a job. Penn State students rioted in Happy Valley, Pa., in response to Paterno’s firing. Can fans ever realize that their traditions are based on heinous foundations?


Sports got in the way of justice in the Paterno case. This incident, though, is just the tip of the ice berg, a problem in American society where sports figures are allowed unquestioned exception for their wrongdoings. At the time, Penn State was very close to letting Paterno off the hook, either letting him finish off the season or allowing him to wipe his hands of the situation and retire on his own terms. Officials were right to fire him immediately, but there are so many other sports stars who often get an unjustifiable second chance in the spotlight. Think Michael Vick. Any ordinary American would likely not get such a second chance. Now, Paterno will be held in the triumphant halls of sports lore, known as “the winningest coach,” not “the guy who failed turn in a child rapist and allowed other kids to be raped because of his inaction.” 

All states and cities in America have a popular sports team, beloved by millions locally and nationally. Think Kentucky or Kansas basketball, and Alabama or Texas football, the NFL’s Jets or Giants. As Penn State shows, officials of every walk and type are willing to go to great lengths to cover up for massive atrocities if it means protecting their cherished sports traditions.

But it’s not just officials who fail in this regard. The media also fails to do its job as guardians of the Fourth Estate to prevent incidents of sports corruption from happening. In 2009, UCONN basketball coach Jim Calhoun was asked why he deserved to be the highest paid state official (UCONN, like Penn State, is a state-funded school) in Connecticut, as the state suffered a $2 million budget shortfall and the Great Recession pounded the average American. Instead of answering the reporter’s question, Calhoun told the man to “shut up.” Other reporters can be heard jeering the man who asked the question and laughing approvingly in response to Calhoun’s answer.


Did Calhoun ever get audited for his money? Why do we care about GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney’s tax rate and tax filings, but we can ask the same brutally hard questions to a basketball coach? We fail to ask why the John Calipari’s, Nick Saban’s, Kobe Bryant’s, Eli Manning’s, and Tiger Wood’s of the world deserve the statuses they do. Sports are just games. They have no bearing on the real world. Their actors should not be treated as demigods, and should be attacked by the media in the same way politicians are.

The media, the fans, policy makers, officials all hold sports exempt of wrongdoing. Joe Paterno proves that. It’s disgusting to hold the man in high regard.

Photo Credit: Mike Pettigino