“We have never covered up things around here. We just didn’t have problems.”
Earlier this week, ESPN published a groundbreaking story on Todd Hodne, a Penn State football player who raped and assaulted several female students during his time on the football team. The Hodne rapes occurred in 1978 and 1979, and he was arrested and charged with the crimes.
The quote above is from former 45-year Penn State head coach Joe Paterno in a 1980 Sports Illustrated piece.
It provides an interesting look into Paterno’s perspective on team issues. Known as a strict disciplinarian, removed Hodne from the team’s roster after a series of legal issues which included petty theft. Per the ESPN piece, the program never acknowledged Hodne’s vicious crimes against women.
Of course, three decades later, the Jerry Sandusky scandal would shake Penn State and the entire nation to its core as it was revealed that Paterno’s close friend and defensive coordinator had been sexually abusing underage boys for years — and that it’s believed Paterno had some idea of what was going on based on old emails and co-workers’ testimonies in court. The long-beloved head coach whose name was synonymous with Penn State football and all it stood for would be fired for his lack of action in the Sandusky case. He died the next year. His statue was removed from campus. The NCAA came down hard.
Yet to this day, many believe that the good of Paterno outweighs the bad. They believe that to win a lot of football games and to be a good football coach is what ought to define Joe Paterno’s legacy. This exact mindset is espoused 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 overtook the final decade of his career.
Mark Dyerson, PSU Center for Study of Sports in Society, provides the nuanced take: “We don’t do legacy very well when there are dark sides to legacies.”
Who is to say what defines a legacy? Certainly, to the boys that Sandusky abused and to their loved ones, Paterno’s legacy is defined by inaction, even if it wasn’t a fully calculated cover-up. To Hodne’s various victims, Paterno’s legacy is defined by brushing off what they went through, never acknowledging the harm that one of Paterno’s players had exacted upon them.
To his players and his family, of course Paterno’s legacy looks different. They loved him. But their 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 far easier to love your family and impart wisdom on your players than it is to turn against an old friend and co-worker and report on sexual abuse that would likely tear the very fabric of your program apart. His legacy can and should include the games that he won and the lives that he changed, but how else are we defined than in how we act in the moments in life that are the hardest, that present us with the tough decisions that demand a moral choice?
Paterno never went to jail. There was no unfair punishment, although some fans believe his firing and the NCAA sanctions on the school to be so. But what does exist is the removal of glorification of a flawed man. In not allowing Paterno to be made into a god in memory, the survivors of the Sandusky sexual assault scandal are given voice and are not forgotten — a fate that eludes a great deal of victims of popular public figures.
And while a nuanced discussion absolutely deserves to exist around this, the ESPN trailer leaves a bad taste in the mouth, particularly in the blinding light of the recently published piece on Hodne. As a lawyer of a Sandusky victim points out, Paterno could have avoided this blemish had he taken further action when he initially found out about Sandusky’s abuse by reporting him to the police, or even if he had limited Sandusky’s continued access to the Nittany Lions program in the 2000s, as several of the assaults occurred in the Penn State locker rooms.
But there is a resolute resistance to place any responsibility for the misdeeds within Paterno’s program on the man himself. Even reporter Bob Costas says in the trailer that the Sandusky scandal “shouldn’t ultimately define” his legacy. That statement is an odd one, because it feels like he’s saying, “we can talk about this now, but when we look back on Paterno a few decades from now, we shouldn’t remember this.” What defines a legacy? Is the definition what will remain over the decades to come? And if the definition doesn’t include the final decade of his career, will that simply be overlooked as a fluke?
Perhaps a decade has passed since the trials, but we shouldn’t just be ready to write that off and move on. To remember a great career is fine. For his players and family to have fond memories of him, and even to come to his defense, is understandable. But for ESPN to give voice to the platform of “yeah, the Sandusky stuff was bad, but…” only a decade removed from Sandusky’s crimes being revealed to the public appears to be yet another disappointing case of survivors’ stories being minimized or erased in order to protect a prominent figure. The image rehab isn’t necessary, and likely does more harm than good in its excuses. Rarely is such an ongoing abuse of power as Sandusky exhibited completely independent of an institutionalized agreement to look the other way.