New ESPN documentary explores Joe Paterno’s legacy


What to do with Joe Paterno's legacy?

What to do with Joe Paterno’s legacy?
picture: Getty Images

“We’ve never covered anything up here. We just didn’t have any problems.”

ESPN published a groundbreaking earlier this week story About Todd Hodne, a Penn State football player who raped and assaulted several female students while on the football team. Hodne’s rapes occurred in 1978 and 1979, and he was arrested and charged with the crimes.

The above quote is from a former 45 year old Penn State head coach Joe Paterno in a 1980 Sports Illustrated article.

It offers an interesting insight Paterno’s perspective on team issues. Known as a strict disciplinarian, Hodne was removed from the team’s roster after a series of legal issues, including petty theft. According to the ESPN article, the program never acknowledged Hodne’s vicious crimes against women.

Of course, three decades later, the Jerry Sandusky scandal shook Penn State and the entire nation to its core when it was revealed that Paterno’s close friend and defensive coordinator had sexually abused underage boys for years — and that it’s believed Paterno had a clue what was going on, based on old emails and testimonies from colleagues in court. The long-loved head coach, whose name was synonymous with Penn State football and everything he stood for, would be fired for his inaction on the Sandusky case. He died the next year. His statue was removed from campus. The NCAA came down hard.

But to this day, many believe that the good of Paterno outweighs the bad. They believe that winning many soccer games and being a good soccer coach should be Joe Paterno’s legacy. This is exactly the kind of thinking represented in ESPN’s teaser for their upcoming E60 episode, titled “The Paterno Legacy.” In the nearly three-minute trailer, we hear his son and several former players come to Paterno’s defense, arguing that his legacy shouldn’t be defined by the scandal that swept the last decade of his career.

Mark Dyerson, PSU Center for Study of Sports in Society, provides the nuanced view: “We don’t do the legacy very well when there’s a dark side to the legacy.”

Who says what makes a legacy? For the boys Sandusky abused and their loved ones, Paterno’s legacy is certainly defined Inaction, even if it wasn’t a fully calculated cover-up. For Hodne’s various victims, Paterno’s legacy is defined by the brushing off what they went throughnever acknowledging the harm one has of Paterno Players had asked for them.

Of course, Paterno’s legacy looks different for his players and family. they loved him. But her positive experiences with him don’t have the authority to erase what he did or didn’t do when things got complicated and difficult. It’s a lot easier to love your family and instill wisdom in your players than it is to fight against an old friend and co-staff and report sexual abuse that would likely tear apart the fabric of your program. His legacy can and should encompass the games he won and the lives he changed, but how else are we defined than by how we behave in life’s toughest moments that throw us before the toughest decisions that require a moral decision?

Paterno never went to prison. There was no unfair punishment, although some fans believe his dismissal and the NCAA sanctions against the school are. But what exists is the elimination of a flawed man’s glorification. By not making Paterno a god of memory, the survivors of the Sandusky sexual assault scandal are given a voice and are not forgotten – a fate that eludes many victims of popular public figures.

And while a nuanced discussion of it is fully deserved, the ESPN trailer leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially in the glare of Hodne’s recently published article. As an attorney for a Sandusky victim points out, Paterno could have avoided this taint had he taken further action when he originally learned of Sandusky’s abuse by reporting him to the police, or even if he had denied Sandusky continued access to the Nittany Lions program in the 2000s, when several of the attacks took place in Penn State’s locker rooms.

But there is a staunch resistance to blaming the man himself for the misdeeds in Paterno’s program. Even reporter Bob Costas says in the trailer that the Sandusky scandal “shouldn’t ultimately define” his legacy. That statement is odd because it feels like he’s saying, “We can talk about it now, but when we look back at Paterno in a few decades, we shouldn’t remember it.” What defines a legacy? Is the definition what will remain over the coming decades? And if the definition doesn’t include the last decade of his career, is that simply being overlooked as a coincidence?

It may have been a decade since the trials, but we shouldn’t be ready to just write that off and move on. Remembering a great career is okay. It is understandable that his players and family have fond memories of him and even come to his defense. But for ESPN, to give the platform a voice: “Yeah, the Sandusky stuff was bad, but…” just a decade away from Sandusky’s Crimes exposed to the public seems to be another disappointing case where survivors’ stories are minimized or deleted to protect a prominent figure. The image rehab isn’t necessary, and its excuses probably do more harm than good. Rarely has such a persistent abuse of power as Sandusky shown itself completely independent of an institutionalized agreement to look the other way.

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