Does The Penn State Scandal Alter Paterno's Legacy?

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had announced Wednesday afternoon that he would retire at the end of the football season. But later that day, he was fired from the position he has held for decades by the school's board of trustees. Penn State and Joe Paterno have been criticized for the handling of a child sex abuse case.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After learning of his firing, Joe Paterno made comments outside his home last night. In his quiet voice, before a noisy crowd, he thanked students and well-wishers.

JOE PATERNO: We've still got things to do. All right, I'm out of it, maybe, now; a phone call put me out of it. But we'll go from here, OK? Hey, good luck, everybody.

INSKEEP: Paterno was never a target of the criminal investigation, but a state police commissioner said the coach's failure to contact law-enforcement authorities about the sex-abuse allegations was a lapse of, quote, moral responsibility. Last night, Joe Paterno told his supporters to pray for the victims of child sex abuse.

PATERNO: One thing. Thanks, and pray a little bit for those victims.

INSKEEP: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is following the story. And Tom, what's behind the strength of feeling we just heard there?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: A deep, deep connection, Steve, stretching back 61 years - I mean, long before a lot of those kids we just heard were born. When the man named - as JoePa first arrived in State College, Pennsylvania, as a new assistant football coach, it was one of Paterno's goals to help make Penn State, which was largely an agricultural college back then, into a better university - not just a better football program. He was an Ivy League graduate; academics were important to him. And through football success, the school started to gain national notoriety. In the late '60s, early '70s, the Nittany Lions had several undefeated football seasons. Paterno got offers to coach in the NFL, but turned them down. He felt he belonged at Penn State, where he could do more good. And that kind of helped solidify his standing as St. Joe the Patron Saint of College Athletics.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned that he wanted to benefit the university as a whole. This trustee that we heard in Jeff Brady's report said that this move, to remove him, was in the best interests of the university as a whole. And yet the New York Times has a photo this morning showing student protesters with signs, and one of them said: Joe Is Our Best Interest. It sounds like even these students who, as you said, were far too young to remember some of his best seasons really identified with this guy.

GOLDMAN: Well, they did. And you know, whether it was, you know, this goal of his to make the university better, or whether it was just this great allegiance to a storied football program - it's a combination of things. The football program over the years became the embodiment of the school slogan: Success With Honor. Penn State won, and the players graduated. A former academic liaison to the football team remembers being constantly hounded by Paterno. How is this player doing in English class? Did that player pass the science test? And Paterno and Penn State were able to avoid major academic or recruiting scandals. They really became the envy of Division I programs, as far as doing things right.

INSKEEP: Tom, it's kind of sticking in my throat here because you just described Paterno following up and following up and checking on students - and that's what he's accused by his critics of failing to do here. He passed on word of this allegation, and then didn't seem to have done much else.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, yeah, well, that's a real irony in that. What we know, yes, there was a great failing on his part, and is a real black mark on the legacy that we've been talking about here.

INSKEEP: Well, does this wipe out the legacy of all these years of coaching? He was a graduate assistant, I think, as long as ago as 1950. He's been the coach since the '60s.

GOLDMAN: You can't wipe out all the good he did. But in the minds of many, as I said, he really kind of messed up here. Many believe it'll be in the first line of his obituary someday - the idea that he was fired in disgrace, and could have done more to stop a terrible situation.

INSKEEP: We should mention, I suppose, that in theory, at least, the firing of the university president would actually be a bigger story. What is the impact on Penn State here?

GOLDMAN: The institution will suffer. There are investigations ongoing that could lead to more dismissals and other sanctions. Fundraising will suffer. We can expect lawsuits. The football program Paterno led for all those years might suffer, too, in terms of recruiting. It could be harder to lure players with Paterno gone and the school's image badly tarnished.

INSKEEP: Does this decision send a message beyond the university, Tom Goldman?

GOLDMAN: Could be. You know, with the glut of college sports scandals in recent years, critics have complained that punishment often is nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Well, a university president and the biggest name coach in the country have been fired by their own Board of Trustees. Of course, the alleged breaches are more than heinous – more heinous than, say, a recruiting violation. But yeah, there's a message: Campus power is not unlimited.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman, reporting on last night's firing of the university president at Penn State as well as the firing of Coach Joe Paterno.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.