I grew up in Pennsylvania. Small town PA during the 1970s, the dark days of deindustrialization. We didn't know what deindustrialization was back then. We just knew that the coal mines were closing, the steel mills were shutting down, and the American Dream was slip sliding away.
Sure, the economy was going to hell, the environment was a mess, and the future looked bleak, but there was one ray of hope for Pennsylvanians in all that fin de siÃ¨cle darkness: football. In the professional ranks there was, of course, the Steelers. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the meanest, toughest dudes in the NFL. Nobody could touch "em, not during the 1970s anyway. And even though I grew up on the other side of the state--within the sphere of (God help me!) Philadelphia Eagles fandom--eastern Pennsylvanians still benefited from the indomitable aura of the winners to the west. Nightmarish as those times may have been, the Steelers managed to transcend all of the misery that was besetting the Rust Belt. The worse times got, the tougher, more successful the Steelers seemed to become.
But it wasn't only the Steelers that sparked the hopes of down-and-out Pennsylvanians, there was also the Nittany Lions. Penn State University, sitting absolutely dead center in the Pennsylvania's rural heartland, won supporters from every part of the state. Being so central, and removed from the influence of any major metropolitan center, the Nittany Lions were the one major football team that everybody in the state could rally around. In part, it was because families from all over Pennsylvania sent their kids to PSU. Every community bragged of dozens--if not thousands--of Penn State students and alums. PSU was the institution that, more than any other, united the state of Pennsylvania. People were proud to be associated with Penn State, easily one of the very best state colleges in the United States, but they were even more proud to be supporters of Nittany Lion football.
It wasn't just that Penn State had winning football team. Practically, every state has a major college football team that its citizens can be proud of. What Pennsylvania had that no one else could brag of was Joe Paterno. Sure, Paterno had whipped the Penn State football team into a perennial contender for the national title. Everybody loves a winner! But Joe Paterno was more than just a winning college football coach, "JoePa' had class. He wasn't one of those "win at any cost" kind of football coaches. Paterno really cared about education. In fact, to listen to the guy, you would have thought that he was an academic dean ("Study, study, study...!") rather than a legendary college football coach.
Joe Paterno was a gentleman. For Joe, winning football games was secondary. First and foremost, Paterno cared about kids--and not just his own football players. Paterno wanted all kids to grow up and be as successful as they could possibly be.
At least, that's what we were led to believe.
Unfortunately, Joe was not a man of his word. Winning football games did matter to Joe Paterno, and, it has come to light that winning obviously, and distressingly, mattered more to Paterno than the welfare of kids. Winning mattered so much that Joe Paterno, that great and honorable man, was willing to make a deal with the devil. Jerry Sandusky was that devil, and Paterno callously, and calculatingly turned a blind eye to Sandusky's criminal pedophelia--even when Sandusky paraded his loathsome abuses directly under Joe Paterno's nose. Rather than taking steps to protect the poor kids that Sandusky wantonly preyed upon, Paterno employed his considerable clout to cultivate a climate of invulnerability for Sandusky at PSU. Just win, baby! Nothing else matters.
So, in the end, have Jerry Sandusky's atrocities soiled Coach Paterno's otherwise unimpeachable image? You're damn right they have, and Paterno has no one to blame but himself. Paterno labored his whole life to cultivate the image of a principled, altruistic warrior, and, in spite of Paterno's tireless self-aggrandizement, the Sandusky scandal has blasted JoePa's public image to smithereens. Had Paterno cared even one iota for the principles that he professed he would have dumped Sandusky the very instant that he caught wind of his lieutenant's felonious assaults. Instead, Joe Paterno hopped into bed with Sandusky, the monster that Paterno knowingly aided and abetted. What a wretched end for an otherwise (seemingly) noble spirit. It's a hard lesson to learn, but the Sandusky affair makes it clear that there are some things that are worse--much, much worse--than losing a few football games.
Though I'm sure he wished it were otherwise, that will be Joe Paterno's most enduring legacy.
*Photo provided courtesy of PSUMark2006 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.