Joe Paterno's last months as head football coach at Penn State were marred by the growing scandal surrounding former assistant Jerry Sandusky, who last month was convicted on child sex abuse charges. When Paterno passed away in January, he was hailed, and at the time, rightfully so, as one of the most successful coaches in Division 1 football. Six months later, the media is quick to reverse their long standing beatification of Paterno, turning him from a saint to a sinner, and all because, according to a just released report, he knew more than he was letting on about Sandusky.
They are calling for the statue erected in Paterno's honor outside Beaver Stadium to be torn down. The school, clearly, is in damage control mode, and is working to erase everything linked to Paterno, as if a career spanning six decades must now be removed from history. In comics, we call that retconning. In life, we call it kicking a man when he's down and unable to defend himself. In this case, it's been six months since Paterno passed away.
He still has his defenders, including former players like Matt Millen, now a broadcaster for ABC/ESPN. In defense of Paterno, what Sandusky did to these kids had no effect or bearing on what happened on the field. No effect on the students who wore those blue & white uniforms with honor, dignity, and pride. No effect on the Nittany Lions' most devoted fans. But because it happened on school property, Paterno, along with his now-former superiors, is being held culpable in covering up Sandusky's dirty secrets.
If you go by the spin doctoring in the media now, the picture of Penn State as an elite, pristine university is forever tarnished by the fact it housed a pedophile who preyed on unsuspecting children and hid behind an administration more committed to protecting the school's image than doing the right thing. Paterno, six months into the grave, is being thrown under the bus.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh's investigation supposedly has uncovered all the facts, but as of now, there's been no comment from the Paterno family. This story is far from over.
I am reminded of something that happened five years ago in the WWE. Wrestler Chris Benoit had died suddenly, and Vince McMahon made the snap decision to suspend storylines for a week to honor the former champion. By the end of the week, after a tribute show had been taped for Friday Night Smackdown, the grisly truth came out, that Benoit had slain his wife, Nancy, and son Daniel, then committed suicide. McMahon's reaction was sudden, swift, and, in typical McMahon fashion, vindictive. He decreed that there would be no more references to Benoit on WWE television, despite everything he'd accomplished. Any older tapes of him from his ECW or WCW days would have references to him deleted. In the blink of an eye, Benoit had gone from saint to pariah. He would never be considered for the WWE's Hall of Fame.
In contrast, Joe Paterno is already in the College Football Hall of Fame. Would they take the unusual step of ejecting him from that shrine? I doubt it. The Hall of Fame is about on-field accomplishment. After all, many a player enshrined in Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame had some character flaws to them, too, but no one's calling for them to be tossed out. I'd rather we remembered Paterno for what he did on the field, mentoring generations of athletes, winning championships. The scandal-obsessed media would rather smear all that by focusing on the scandal that forced Paterno out of Penn State in November, dashing the Nittany Lions' Big 10 title hopes in the process. Until we learn the whole story, no matter how sordid it is, the knee-jerk reactions and demands will continue to echo until they are heard and fulfilled. And they shouldn't be.