There is a Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium, which seats more than 100,000 (making it one of the largest stadiums in the world), and students who camp out in tents before the games in order to get the best seats call their camp Paternoville. There is even a campus ice cream flavor named Peachy Paterno.
None of this is achieved overnight. In fact, legacies like this can only be built over the course of a lifetime, perhaps only over the course of a long lifetime. And legacies like this can only be built without scandal, which makes the accomplishment all the more difficult. To use a “celestial” play on words, there are many “rising stars” who quickly become “falling stars,” many “shooting stars” whose impact lasts for a moment, many “superstars” whose accomplishments are all but negated by their personal failures.
This was not the case with Coach Paterno, whose personal life, career achievements, and longevity made for a very solid “threefold cord” that could not be easily broken (see Ecclesiastes 4:12b for the concept).
And then one scandal. One tragically serious oversight. One failure to go beyond formal procedure (of reporting the incident to his authorities, which he properly did) and take further action (by going to the police, or at least, by assuring that something was being done, since the same accused man continued to serve as a trusted member of his senior staff for years). In Paterno’s own words, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
A tragedy indeed. As Maisel wrote, “The idea that Paterno’s legacy, built with the highest of ideals, will be stained by the vilest of scandals should test the faith of all of us.”
In the future, it is possible that Paterno will be remembered more for his decades of service to Penn State than for the current scandal, and that “distance and perspective will eventually create a more nuanced legacy.”
But there can be no doubt that his extraordinary legacy has been tarnished, as headlines are now reading, “Scandal sullies Joe Paterno’s legacy” and “Paterno’s legacy a sad, sorry finish.” Dead flies indeed, and a sobering lesson for us all.
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.