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Evaluating Joe Paterno in the Internet Age

Maybe we should have taken more time to assess Joe Paterno’s legacy. But in the age of Fox News and Twitter, what we should have done does not matter.

Death compels us to reflect on life.

In the internet age, the death of any celebrity spurs us to give his or her Wikipedia page a read, to listen closely to a song, to do anything else that allows us to briefly and concisely surmise what Heavy D, or Michael Jackson, or Sidney Pollack meant to the world and whether his death was worth lingering upon.

But what happens when everything we know is not validated by death—but instead, is sullied by life? When legacy goes up in flames, we cannot simply peruse a resume and say to ourselves, “Wow, despite all her faults, Amy Winehouse was truly an incredible talent.” Witnessing a reputation disintegrate is far more complicated than regretting having not paid closer attention to Richard Pryor’s comedy.

When a man dies, his work lives. When legacy dies and man lives, we are left with impossible ruin, forced to reconcile everything we knew with everything we now know.

Such is the case in the death of Joe Paterno, the coach. Joe Paterno, the man, persists. Now nearly 85 years old, and despite his recent diagnosis with a treatable form of lung cancer, he is, by all accounts, as lucid and “spunky” as ever.

But Joe, the coach – the former Brooklynite who is the winningest coach in college football’s history; the man whose countless histories, profiles and biographies read like one of Homer’s epics; the patriarchal figure, who, for more than half a century, was not just synonymous with Penn State football, but Penn State itself—that man is gone. And he’s never coming back.

Joe Posansnki is a writer for Sports Illustrated and the official biographer of Joe Paterno. He is also, by many accounts (including my own) the best sportswriter alive. Contracted to write JoePa’s definitive history several years ago, Posansnki moved away from his family to State College, PA, for the 2011 football season. In his words:

“I came here to write about one of the giants of sports. And my wife and I both felt that the only way to tell the story, for better and worse, was to be around it every day.”

Posnanski got his wish, but in a way that he – and the public – could never have anticipated. He was able to witness firsthand the inexorable fall of one of our society’s greatest contemporary heroes. And then, afterwards, he was forced to survey his intellectual rubble, which only grew as shock, confusion and sadness all took hold, then amalgamated, spread and infected.

As Paterno’s official biographer, Posnanski had no choice but to respond to the news. And he did, eloquently – although perhaps misguidedly, in The End of Paterno, a piece published on his personal blog.

The End of Paterno reads startlingly similarly to 2009’s “Top of the World, Pa!” a 4,300 word feature Posnanski wrote in the form of a love letter to Angelo Paterno, Joe’s late father. The situations surrounding each of the two pieces, however, could not have been more different: when Top of the World was published on October 26, 2009, the Nittany Lions were 8-1 amid incessant calls for Paterno to step down. Yet, even when faced with his current bleakness, Posnanski’s writing is permeated by the emotion Paterno so persistently evokes.

Top of the World, like almost all Paterno profiles, is filled with anecdotes of the Nittany Lion’s devotion to his players, of his formative experiences and of words of wisdom from the man himself. It is written like an epigraph, as Posnanski relays a conversation Joe Paterno once had with his son Jay, now an assistant coach for the Lions:

“You’ll understand, once you have kids, that life changes. You’ll find that your happiness is defined by your least happy child. You’ll understand. Every player we have, someone—maybe a parent, a grandparent, someone—poured their life and soul into that young man. They are handing that young man off to us. They are giving us their treasure, and it’s our job to make sure we give them back that young man intact and ready to face the world.”

Posnanski relays a stark image of a patriarchal figure. But as far as the writer is concerned, JoePa isn’t merely lending his son a guiding hand: he is showing the entire country how to live its life. We must look beyond the surface. We must keep football in its proper perspective. We must keep life in its proper, more prominent perspective.

Posnanski is almost always emotional but rarely loses his iron grip on logic. That’s why his writing is so compelling and what makes his reaction to Paterno’s downfall even more so.
The Court of Public Opinion (read: the media) wields only one of two verdicts in response to celebrity crime: not guilty or lethal injection. We decide either that domestic murder nullifies all of OJ Simpson’s achievements or that Don King, after stomping a man to death over $600, is worthy of forgiveness. The only middle ground lies in determining just how long a celebrity suffers on death row. Does fame suddenly morph into infamy? Or does it slowly become engulfed by darkness, eventually rusting enough that the original luster has become completely obscured?

Just like everyone else, Posnanski—the passionate man’s rationalist—is shaken by shocking and sudden change.

But in the End of Paterno, Posnanski has an entirely different point of view. After explicitly stating three important points (that Paterno was at least partly responsible for Sandusky’s atrocities, that he could no longer be permitted to coach the football team, and that none of that was remotely important as Sandusky’s victims), Posnanski continues, “I’m not saying I know Joe Paterno. I’m saying I know a whole lot about him,” he says. “And what I know is complicated. But, beyond complications — and I really believe this with all my heart — there’s this, and this is exclusively my opinion: Joe Paterno has lived a profoundly decent life.”

When legacy dies and man lives, we experience a ‘recoding,’ but one that happens almost immediately instead of being manifested over generations. Joe Posnanski knew everything about Joe Paterno. And then, suddenly, he didn’t.

Penn State students knew that Joe Paterno was a god. Many students knew he was the defining reason why they decided to attend the university. Then suddenly, he wasn’t.

What is Penn State without Joe Paterno, the man who boosted the university’s endowment north of $1,500,000,000? When Joe Paterno first became an assistant coach for the Nittany Lions in 1950, the school announced they expected to have an enrollment of 18,000 by 1970. Today, Penn State University Park enrolls nearly 45,000 students annually.

The largest difficulty in interpreting Joe Paterno’s legacy lies in how it was destroyed. Often, we assess a celebrity’s crime in respect to his image. In 2000, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was found guilty of obstruction of justice in a double murder. Yet today – due to his renown as one of the NFL’s most aggressive defenders and his militaristic demeanor – Lewis is so well-liked it almost seems as if the high-profile arrest, indictment and conviction ever happened.

Has anyone ever batted an eye when a rapper went on trial for firearm possession, drug use, or even murder?

But in the case of Paterno, it’s hard to imagine we have ever seen such a thorough and diametric deconstruction of a man’s image.

For 60 years, JoePa was a great football coach who also happened to be a great man. He allegedly proved these qualities were not mutually exclusive. Entrusted with the fates of thousands of young men, his true charge was not to win football games; instead he looked to help young men win at life. He was a living, breathing sports movie cliché. An impossible ideal, actualized.

So, on the surface, Posnanski’s reaction is infinitely more rational than most. He is able to draw a line in the sand, to say Yes, what Joe Paterno did was horribly and terribly wrong. But that doesn’t unmake a man. Joe made a morally criminal mistake and should be reprimanded as such. But 62 years of greatness runs parallel, not perpendicular. You should no longer be able to look at Joe Paterno without thinking of Jerry Sandusky and his victims, but that shouldn’t be all you think of.

Maybe this is how it should be, but it is not how it is – even for Posnanski.

“I don’t know anything about Paterno’s role in this,” he writes, stressing the need to sit back and wait for the details to come out. “But I have seen some things in the last few days that have felt rotten, utterly wrong – a piling on that goes even beyond excessive, a dancing on the grave that makes me ill.”

Unfortunately for Posnanski and for Paterno, The Court of Public Opinion is always open. “We are in a top-you world,” he laments, “where everyone is not only trying to report something faster but is also trying to report something ANGRIER.”

In this ‘top-you’ world, individual opinion exists but becomes lost in a ‘howling.’ Even something as eloquently-written as End of Paterno, penned by a source with nearly unparalleled knowledge of the subject, is drowned out by the influence of Fox & Friends and Hardball.

‘Top-You’ is driven by a trickle-down effect. “One guy wants Joe Paterno to resign, the next wants him to be fired, the next wants him to be fired this minute, the next wants him to be fired and arrested, the next wants him to be fired, arrested and jailed, on and on, until we’ve lost sight of who actually committed the crimes here.” But as this attitude grips the public, individual voices become increasingly difficult to discern. “I hear the stories, the countless stories, of the kindnesses that came naturally to him,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you these stories now, because you can’t hear them. Nobody can hear them in the howling.”

Here, Posnanski digs his argument’s grave, perhaps even purposefully. He understands that it does not matter whether or not his point of view is ‘correct’ – if there could even be anything ‘correct’ in this mess. But that is not going to stop him from dreading the status quo. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the only thing that matters is the volume of your voice. As Posnanski suggests, say something loud enough and you will be heard. And listened to. Especially if you have a big enough mountain — or sound stage — to howl from.

Attempt to be rational in a room filled to capacity with anger? Never. The one will always be drowned out by the many. It doesn’t matter how righteous or wrong each side is; slander be damned, collective memory inevitably trumps individual knowledge. All Posnanski asks is that we attempt to decipher Paterno’s legacy instead of instantly incinerating it. Too bad no one can hear him.

Jesse Golomb is the lead writer and creator of TheFanManifesto. Follow him on twitter.