The news that Joe Paterno is retiring as the head coach of Penn State’s football team after 46 seasons is heartbreakingly sad for many reasons. First and foremost, there are the children who were victims of the despicable actions alleged to have been made by Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former defensive coordinator. Then, of course, there is the negligence by university officials who have been alleged to be protecting their football program rather than innocent kids. And of course, there is the grievous image of watching a beloved 84-year-old coach end his career amid such disturbing circumstances.
But there is another reason the news will be so distressing to so many. Joe Paterno was not just any NCAA coach, and Penn State was not just any old team. This was the Norman Rockwell of college football. The place is called Happy Valley, for goodness sake. The program was known as one of the most squeaky clean in all of college sports, with a coach whose sepia-toned approach to leading his football team often felt like a nostalgic brush with another era.
But that righteous reputation could now be irretrievably shattered, and may have even played a role in the university’s failure to report to police the unspeakable crimes that were alleged to have happened. For one, the program’s saintly status surely made it just that much harder for university officials to come forward with the allegations when they first happened. Any institution would be horrified to have to admit that such despicable crimes occurred on its campus and allegedly involved one of its most well-known coaches.
However, just as success breeds complacency, a holy reputation can lead to a place where denial and negligence takes hold. This is not meant to be an excuse for the administrators who resigned earlier this week. But if you’ve always been put on a pedestal, doing anything that might get you knocked off of it is harder than for those who’ve never been elevated to one in the first place.
I also have to wonder if Penn State’s pristine image contributed in another way. Programs that have been repeatedly tested by lesser scandals have been forced to institute the sort of regimented crisis response plans that might have prompted a better reaction in this case. It’s possible that Penn State’s record—Paterno apparently never faced more than off-campus incidents involving his players—could have meant that institutional opportunities to blow the whistle hadn’t been fully developed.
That’s not to say that common sense and human decency shouldn’t have stepped in to make the right response painfully obvious, particularly from university officials who should have had much more emotional distance than Paterno from someone he’d worked with so closely for 30 years. But context, as they say, is king, and I can’t help but think that the wholesome reputation of the football team from Happy Valley didn’t play a part. Sometimes, the steepest falls from grace come from where we least expect them, and their high perch may be part of the problem.
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