ESPN is reporting that Joe Paterno is dead at 85. According to the story, he died this morning after fighting a two-month battle against lung cancer.
Paterno was a legendary coach who took the Penn State program to the pinnacle of college football, but his legacy will be forever tarnished by the alleged child sex abuse scandal involving long-time assistant Jerry Sandusky — and by Paterno’s apparent failure to respond appropriately to reports about Sandusky’s conduct.
By all accounts, Paterno was a generous man who gave huge sums to Penn State. He was intensely loyal to that institution. He was loved by players and fans and students. During his long coaching career, he became a true college football icon.
I’m sure that many will argue that his many positive contributions far outweigh his what they consider to be his lapse in judgment about Sandusky. That is a calculation that can’t be made today, tomorrow, or for some time — at least until after the criminal trials are held and the full story about the Sandusky scandal, and its impact on the poor boys who evidently were the subject of Sandusky’s attention and who were so ill-served by those in positions of authority, is told by witnesses testifying under oath. The passage of time allows for perspective and understanding that is impossible to obtain when events are raw and recent.
It’s important not to forget Paterno’s good deeds, but it’s also important not to whitewash or overlook his missteps, too. Human beings are complex and imperfect, and Paterno’s story is further evidence of that — as if we needed any.