Monday, January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno's Death Doesn't Mean Anything

"If we lose what we have in [college] football, we're gonna lose an awful lot in this country."
- Joe Paterno at his Hall of Fame induction speech

Joe Paterno got what was coming to him.

I don't mean that in a mean-spirited way, but I reiterate: Joe Paterno got what was coming. Paterno wanted to be treated as more than just a football coach, as a leader of men, as an educator, as a football coach who transcended football. On that count Joe Paterno failed.

I certainly don't mean to say that he deserved to die. On the topic of his death, I don't have a lot to say. He was an old and sick man, and he passed away soon after a traumatic event in which he was rightfully stripped of his job. Death is an inevitability, and it is not particularly surprising for 86-year-old men with cancer to pass away. But let's make a few things clear. The media did not give him cancer. Neither did the trustees at Penn State. What the media and the trustees begrudgingly, finally did was their jobs. And Joe Paterno was complicit in the systemic cover-up of children being raped by an employee (and friend), and regardless of his other virtues, he deserved to be fired.

Paterno's legacy is not, as this NY Times obit indicated, complicated. He was undoubtedly a great football coach, or at least a coach who stuck around for a long, long time. He was a positive influence in a lot of people's lives, built libraries at PSU, and was by all accounts a true humanitarian. He professed to believe in a style of coaching that coached character alongside football, but when the shit hit the fan, football took precedence over morality. Along with (idiotic) conjecture about whether the media killed a frail 86-year-old, the obituary contained a line from a long-time friend of Paterno named Larry Foster that beautifully, if unintentionally, encapsulates everything that is wrong with the NCAA and the beatification of Paterno: "I think that the people who criticized him after his departure from the university need to understand that the university came first." Don't you get it, Mr. Foster? That's precisely the problem.

I should explain that I pulled that line out of context. What Foster meant to say was that everything Paterno did was for the betterment of the University, not just for the glory of his football team. I would contend that the Sandusky cover-up fits within that construction. Paterno put the University first, in this case ahead of what was morally right, ahead of fucking protecting children from a monster. I don't care how much good you've done. That's unforgivable. Paterno may have done what was legally required of him, but he asked to be held to a higher standard, and we held him to it.

We shouldn't have been shocked. We made Joe Paterno into a legend and it turned out he was a man.

Culturally we've fallen into a trap where we want everything to mean more than what it is. That quote from Paterno at the top of this post is a load of bullshit. College football is football played by 18-22 year-olds, no more and no less. It is not a leadership factory. The NCAA is admittedly, almost willfully corrupt, and at this point verging on being endearingly anachronistic. It makes a ton of money exploiting incredible athletes, utilizing ESPN and major media outlets to project the image of its games as world-class and modern, but you get the feeling that college football's self-image is in 35mm black and white film. Cutting-edge and money-making game, old-school and values-based philosophy. This contradiction is everywhere, and every time the NCAA cracks down on another football factory, people grow wearier and wearier of the NCAA's flimsy justice.

College athletics are about more than athletics, claims the NCAA, and Joe Paterno was the exemplar of that ethos.

Or so we thought.

"I know what I've done for music, but don't call me a legend. Just call me Miles Davis."
- Miles Davis

The Eddie Robinson Coach-of-the-Year Award, which Paterno won in 1998, recognizes "an active college coach who is a role model to students and players, an active member of the community and an accomplished coach." Paterno was supposed to represent all of this, when he was in fact just a coach. We never would have had this problem if we didn't create this model of coach as molder of men, with college athletics transcending sports. In an ideal world, Joe Paterno never would have been more than a football coach.

Bear with me here, but I see a lot of parallels between Paterno and Tiger Woods. Both had impeccably constructed images, and both had stunning and swift falls from grace. Woods wanted to be known as the winner and the all-American family man who smiled and sold Buicks and Nikes to you. It turned out he wasn't, and countless allegations of extra-marital affairs later he's still trying to pick up the pieces of his image. Paterno wanted to be the coach who was more than just a coach, who cared about academics and teaching morality. He may have done a lot of good, but he failed in a big way with his reaction to the Sandusky allegations.

Woods' career is still in the tank (though, I personally am rooting for him to turn it around), and people are beginning to accept him as just a great golfer, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe he'll sell less cars, but at least we know he's not perfect.

Yesterday, Joe Paterno passed away, with a legacy apparently in flux. He was a great coach, and we should have left it at that.

So what does Joe Paterno's death mean? Nothing, except it's one more reminder that our idols aren't perfect.

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