Remembering Joe Paterno: What Is His Legacy?

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died Sunday at the age of 85. The legendary coach's reputation was deeply tarnished after sex abuse charges were filed against a former assistant coach. Writers and fans continue to debate how Paterno should be remembered.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died from lung cancer yesterday, at the age of 85. The Hall of Famer won more games than anyone in major college football history, and became an icon in State College, Pennsylvania, for his emphasis on academics and integrity as much as on winning; and for the donation of a library and funds for the study of the classics. That legacy, though, was deeply tarnished after allegations of sex abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and after Paterno's abrupt dismissal after 61 years. Paterno himself said: I should have done more.

How should we remember Joe Paterno? Give us a call: 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org. We'll also read excerpts from several op-eds. We'll begin with this, from Buzz Bissinger on the Daily Beast, where he said: He should not be remembered for - he should be remembered for what he did do: his success as a football coach on the field in which he won 409 games, the most in history; his far more impressive record off the field, in which, according to a recent study, 80 percent of his players graduated within six years; his multimillion-dollar donation to the Penn State library system; his undying love for the school.

But he must be remembered for what he did not do - which wasn't losing to Ohio State or Michigan or Wisconsin, but the willful inaction that by all accounts, helped to aid and abet an alleged sexual predator named Jerry Sandusky. It is how I will remember him most. Maybe it is because the scandal unfolded so soon before his death, or maybe because it was such a failure of responsibility.

Let's see if we can go to a caller. And Glen(ph) is on the line, with us from Panama City in Florida.

GLEN: Yes. Thank you. You know, I feel sorry for the people in Pennsylvania because, you know, most of these people, obviously, they don't deserve that tarnish. But sports is all about sportsmanship. You've got to do the right thing, and he did not do the right thing. If he saw a young man being raped back in 2002 and did no more than he did about it - he didn't call the police - they should take that statue and melt it into ingots, and sell it to benefit people that are suffering from those types of abuses. They should take his name off the library too. Get rid of all of it; give it back to his family.

CONAN: I understand your anger. He, though, did not witness the alleged rape. He was told about it by someone else - who soft-pedaled it, as I understand it. Nevertheless, Paterno himself admitted, I should have done more.

GLEN: Yeah. And he didn't, so he doesn't deserve a statue. And I would - if I were a Penn State alumni or student, I would be furious that his statue is on that university; doesn't deserve to be there. Think about the victims, folks. Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Glen. Here's an email from Lorna(ph) in Palisade, Colorado: As undergraduates, we used to pass Joe Paterno on the sidewalk outside East Halls, the largest housing development in the free world, as he walked to the stadium for practice. We were always aware that he put education of his players above football. For that reason, he was and will remain our hero.

CONAN: And let's go next to - this is Rick(ph), and Rick's with us from Ann Arbor.

RICK: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead.

RICK: I think Coach Paterno is unduly being criticized because - as you said early - he didn't perform the rape; he didn't witness the rape. He reported to people who had the authority to investigate, and he returned to his 16-hour-a-day job. And so he's been - I think he's being vilified. And as I made a point to a friend earlier - is that when I was 13 years old, I was the manager of our high school track team. And during a hazing incident, it got a little creepy.

I've never blamed the coach. I blame the guy who performed the - who decided he wanted to get grabby on me. And that was more - I don't see why Paterno being a third or fourth party should be vilified for this in the way that the previous caller spoke against him so - he didn't do it.

CONAN: He did not do it. That's - and was not being investigated for any criminal wrongdoing - at least, that's our understanding.

RICK: Right. His crime was that he didn't follow up as actively as he should have, and that's his crime. But his crime pales - far pales in comparison to what anybody else ever did so...

CONAN: Well, a moral failure, then.

RICK: I'm sorry?

CONAN: A moral failure?

RICK: I don't know. I think moral - somebody made the point to me one time was if that was the mother of a child, you know that she would have followed up. And somebody pointed out that you have all these big football coaches with all their bravery on the football field, but they couldn't stand up to a guy who is abusing kids. Now, is that Paterno, or is the assistant coach who reported it, or is anybody else who did the investigating? Is Paterno the one? He is the most visible person. He is the deepest pockets, maybe, for people to go after.

But if it was me, I'd ask the victims.Was Paterno at fault, or was anybody else at fault? Do you - do they hold Paterno at fault? And for everybody else to weigh in on their opinion, I think it's just an opinion that has a little value compared to what the victims would actually - who they would actually blame.

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much for the call.

RICK: Thank you.

CONAN: This, from a piece by Jim Litke in the Associated Press. Joe Paterno had barely hung up on the phone when his wife of 50 years picked it up and redialed the number scrawled on the slip of paper. After 61 years, Sue Paterno said to the man who just fired her husband, he deserved better.

We'll skip down a few paragraphs - yes, he did, Jim Litke continues. And there may be no more fitting postscript for the life and career of a football coach, husband and father who became not just the face but the unyielding, cantankerous soul of a school that over the course of his tenure, was transformed from a cow college into a top-shelf, public research university.

Now, all those people who rushed to judgment about Paterno's role in the Sandusky case will have to find their way out from under the sordid scandal without the longtime coach. Paterno, 85, died yesterday of lung cancer. Those who knew him well believe it was something more akin to a broken heart. His legacy will be forever clouded, in large part because the chance to prove his remorse in the final chapter of his public life was taken by the trustees, and is now gone forever.

For the lion's share of his 85 years, though, Paterno piled one good deed on top of another that had nothing to do with football; things that time can't erase - like the library that sits several blocks from the football stadium and was built, in large part, with his donations back to the school. On balance, all that good should have been enough to earn him one, final opportunity to erase the stain that he called one of the great tragedies of his life. He deserved better.

Let's go next to Michael, and Mike's on the line from Portland.

MICHAEL: Hi, there. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to utilize him as an example of somebody who may have done a lot of good in his life, someone who may have accomplished a lot, can still make an extreme error in judgment that could have potentially caused a tremendous amount of harm.

CONAN: So a teachable moment.

MICHAEL: Yes.

CONAN: All right. Michael, thanks very much.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: This is from a piece on si.com by Stewart Mandel, remembering Joe Paterno: Though he wouldn't say so openly, Paterno had long feared suffering the same fate as Bear Bryant, the revered Alabama coach who died of a heart attack four weeks after coaching his last game. Eerily, Thursday's the 30th anniversary of Bryant's death. Paterno couldn't imagine life without football. When he was finally confronted with that dreaded reality, it was not of his own volition.

So an 85-year-old man found himself grappling with his unexpected professional demise while also fighting something as unmerciful as lung cancer. Whether you rooted for him or hated him, admired him or detested him, you can surely see the sadness and the self-wrought tragedy of Paterno's final days. One of the perks of becoming an idol is achieving historic immortality, but Paterno was never more human than during the final 11 weeks of his life.

And let's go next to Paul, Paul with us from Black Mountain in North Carolina.

PAUL: Hi, Neal. So you did a good segue because what I - my comment is, basically, this is a tragedy. And the thing about a tragedy, and a tragic figure, is that they're caught up in forces that are far bigger and far beyond their control. And the question about this tragedy is: What is the tragedy of it? And I would like to say that in my opinion, this is an incident that shows that there's something amiss in how we finance, and how we support, higher education in this country - when football and the reputation of a football team, etc., becomes something that could cause all of these lapses of judgment.

And so it's not really about Joe Paterno. It's about our values being kind of misplaced. And I'm not saying - I mean, I basically think that this could be mitigated a lot if we had a better way of financing public higher education. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Paul. This along the same lines from a piece on espn.com by Howard Bryant, who, of course, also appears Saturday morning sometimes with Scott Simon. (Reading) Despite the urge, Paterno's death should not be used as an opportunity to massage and soften the events that led to his downfall, for it's possible to mourn his passing without rewriting the truths that are known. The truth that his passing should also mark the end of college sports coaching dynasty.

For all the victories and championships, the recruiting coups and runaway revenues, it cannot be understated that his death stands enshrouded in bittersweet contradictions because of the dynasty he was allowed to build. Paterno had too much power, with not nearly enough oversight. He was bigger than the school, and the school towered to - cowered to him. Paterno gave millions back to Penn State, and as his power grew and grew unchecked over four decades, the university lost the ability to control whether he was benevolent or a tyrant.

It was not a power particularly special to Paterno, but to his industry. The entire culture of the coach deserves deconstruction and revision, for the same can be said, in varying degrees, of Bryant and Knight, Bowden and Calhoun, Krzyzewski and Boeheim. Let's go next to - this is John, and John's with us from Aurora in New York.

JOHN: How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JOHN: Great. You know, I listened and - or rather, I read the report about what Paterno said to the reporter, and he said something very interesting. And he said he didn't want to bias the investigation. Now, if you think about how much power that Paterno had and how much there is in our society the abuse of power, at that point in time, if he had followed up, it might have been considered a witch hunt. Or if he, you know, came down - his superiors or the people under him, you know, if he leaned one way or another, he could have been seeing trying to bias the outcome.

He did, I think, exactly what a position - a man in his position had to do. He reported it to the people who had jurisdiction over the situation, and then he let it go and let the chips where they - you know, they had to fall where they had to fall without him coming on either side of it, because he realized all the things that the reporter just wrote, that he was, in many ways, you know, Penn State.

CONAN: Yet some might say...

JOHN: Go ahead.

CONAN: ...well, some have said, in fact, that by simply reporting it up to chain of command, he was sending a signal, too, to let's not pay too much attention to this because Joe Paterno, the most powerful man in Happy Valley, did not want to pursue this.

JOHN: But he didn't know at the time whether it was accurate or not. If he had - believe me, based on everything, you know, the best way that you can indicate anything about a person is their past behavior. If Joe Paterno had, you know, I believe, felt that there was this horrible person on his campus, why wouldn't he have just fired him?

CONAN: Well, he was no longer on the staff at the time. So...

JOHN: No, but I mean, yeah, you know, you're banned from campus. If he had that much power, believe me, Joe Paterno could have snapped his fingers and said, out of here.

CONAN: Yes, he could have. I'm sure he could have.

JOHN: No - there's no doubt about that. Now, why would a guy with his background, with his faith, with all these, you know, things dismiss this? There's no past history of that.

CONAN: Yet he seemed to be remorseful that he did not do enough, that this was not investigated, that the victims were...

JOHN: But that's 20-20.

CONAN: I agree, 20-20.

JOHN: That's 20-20. I mean, obviously, the guy came into his office. He said some things. He didn't go in slamming his fist on the desk and say, coach, this is what I'd saw. What are we going to do? He came in and he said, look, I saw this guy in the shower with somebody else. It appeared that he didn't know - he didn't make a definitive statement.

CONAN: But neither you and or I were at that meeting. But he could have said: What exactly did you see? This is a very serious allegation, a former coach in the shower.

JOHN: Now, that's going to be an interesting part of the court case. But you have to, you know, 60 years of being an outstanding guy doesn't fade at a kitchen table at 10 o'clock at, you know, at night.

CONAN: All right. John, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about the legacy of Joe Paterno. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. This email from John in Eugene, Oregon: Joe Paterno cared more about winning than anything, including the lives of vulnerable children who looked up to him. He knew Mr. Sandusky should not be allowed to be involved with children or young people, but he allowed the contact and ignored the consequences to pump up the wins column and his ego. He should forever be referred to as child molestation-enabling Coach Joe Paterno. They should help prompt people who were unsure of a coach's or other trusted adults' intentions to look at the situation with open eyes. Paterno's actions sully the great Vince Lombardi line: Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Brian, Brian with us from Ocala, in Florida.

BRIAN: Hello, yeah. I believe that - I love your show. I enjoy listening to you. I listen to you every day.

CONAN: Thank you.

BRIAN: I love the fact that - well, you know, the man did what he was supposed to do. He reported the incident. Once you put it in someone else's hand, it's not for him to keep the hovering over - the guy who worked up under him that did this. But at the same given time, I believe he looked at the situation and said, you know what? Even when it came out, I've done what I'm supposed to do. Why make a big fuss? He had a good career, you know, he lived a long time. He enjoyed his life, you know, and can't nobody break his record. No one has broken his record yet as a football coach.

So, yeah, when you're at there, it is about winning. But at the end of the day, I still believe he did what he was supposed to do. You can't force someone to do what they're supposed to do. It just looked bad on him because he was the head coach. But I believe the man walked away in dignity with it, and didn't walk away with his head hung down. And he said: You know what? I enjoyed a life. I know the students love me, he said, from his doorstep. I love the students, too. Why make a big issue of it? No doubt, he probably knew that his days was getting short. So why waste the rest of your time arguing over issues that you really have no control about it, that's going to even make it worse for you in the time that you got left?

CONAN: Brian, thank you very much.

BRIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: We'll finish with this comment on CNN from LZ Granderson, a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and espn.com, this an excerpt from this piece. (Reading) If you've ever held a crying child in your arms, it's hard to see Paterno as a victim of the media. But if you've ever made a mistake, if you've ever mishandled a difficult situation, if you've ever done something you've regretted, then it should be hard characterize JoePa - a man that has done so much good outside of football - as a pariah.

And therein lies the rub: What do you when a wonderful man who's made a terrible mistake dies? How do you properly honor an admirable life without whitewashing the egregious shortcomings that ruined the lives of others? I see the Penn State students paying tribute to Paterno in front of his statue on campus and wonder how many would still do so if they had young children of their own to protect. How many would do so if they were one of Sandusky's alleged victims? I'm not directly tied to the scandal at Happy Valley, so I wasn't among those who was wronged, and thus it's not really my place to judge or forgive. But who among us can forget?

Joe Paterno is scheduled to be buried in a funeral in Pennsylvania on Wednesday. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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