The Paterno Paradox
“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
For former English major turned legendary college football coach, Joe Paterno was not the inspiration behind Fitzgerald’s famous quote. But he ended up being exactly that, with his legion of supporters confronting his mixed legacy.
As the Louis Freeh Report concludes Paterno’s culpability in the Penn State tragedy, support of the iconic coach amongst PSU alumni and students remains inexplicably strong. While some alumni and former players have since backtracked on their support of the grandfatherly coach affectionately known as “JoePa,” there are many more refusing to believe that a man who once insisted on success with honor, could himself be accused of enabling child rape, for the sake of a football program.
In a phone interview conducted before the Freeh Report was released, PSU sophomore Steve Valenti, 41 of State College, PA, believes Paterno’s 61 years of community and institutional philanthropy should not be forgotten, nor should his statue be taken down.
“We’re talking about a man that’s more than a football coach,” Valenti said. “He was a philanthropist…he has endowed scholarships for liberal arts students.”
Valenti also believes it is wrong “…to hold (Paterno) responsible for something [after his death], without him being able to confront his accusers.” Contacted shortly after the Freeh Report was released, Valenti reaffirmed his support of Paterno, and of his legacy.
Likewise, the San Diego Chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association issued a statement via its incoming president Eric Gavala, saying “Throughout his career, we believe Coach Paterno made extraordinary contributions to the Penn State community. While history will have the final word on his legacy and involvement in the Sandusky case, we hope that his countless goodworks are not forgotten. “
Former Penn State player, and current Chicago Bears defensive tackle Anthony Adams, expressed mixed emotions about Paterno in an interview with Chicago Bears beat reporter Michael Wright last November, saying “…we all know what Coach Paterno meant to the university, [and] we all know what he meant to us as individuals.” Asked to comment for this article about the disposition of the Paterno statue, before its early morning Sunday removal, and his opinion of Paterno’s legacy, Adams (@spiceadams) responded via Twitter, “Keep it. He worked hard.”
Echoing Valenti’s and Adams’ stance was 18-year old Penn State freshman, and area resident, Connor Bortz.
A self-admitted Paterno supporter “all my life, now and forever,” Bortz (@Bortzy67) believes that while “this was the Sandusky Scandal, not the Penn State scandal,” Paterno’s “statue should stay, legacy is tarnished.”
In a phone interview, Chris Morelli, editor of the Centre County Gazette (State College Park, PA), and 1991 PSU graduate, tried to rationalize this rabid, albeit slowing support of Paterno’s once pristine legacy.
“When you live in a small community, like State College, there seems to be this idolatry put out towards people like Joe Paterno,” Morelli explained. “I think more people are coming around and realizing that maybe he wasn’t such a good guy, but there are people who…will not admit their hero was flawed.”
On the day the Freeh Report was released, Nike founder Phil Knight announced that the “Joe Paterno Child Development Center” at Nike headquarters would be renamed. From making an impassioned support of Paterno during his eulogy on January 26, and drawing thunderous applause from those in attendance, Knight reversed course on July 12, saying in an official statement: “It appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences.”
Morelli believes the Nike action was inevitable, as is University and local area actions, citing Paterno merchandise disappearing from stores’ shelves as just the beginning.
“We’re gonna get to a point where the statue comes down, and I think that’s just the first step,” Morelli said. “If you’re going to get a fresh start, if you’re going to start a new era with the new football coach, you have to wipe the past clean.”
A reboot of the past may be easier said than done for the JoPa fandom.
According to Dr. Sarah Castillo, Lead Faculty for the Sport Psychology program at National University, the entrenched Paterno supporter has two psychological barriers when confronting Paterno’s flawed legacy as outlined in the Freeh Report: cognitive dissonance, a term coined in the 1950s by Dr. Leon Festinger; and fan identity.
“[Cognitive dissonance] is the idea that human beings are motivated…for a balance in their thoughts, attitudes and beliefs,” Castillo explained. “When we have attitudes, beliefs or behaviors that don’t agree, that causes a level of disharmony…or dissonance.”
Bringing one’s self back into harmony requires altering one of those attitudes, which might be monumental considering the amount of personal energy and time the Penn State (and Paterno) fan has invested in the school and football program, throughout his or her lifetime. While placing the (justified) blame on Sandusky, as well as dissociating one’s self from the other involved leadership figures is easy, it is the Paterno relationship that drives this internal conflict. Castillo explained this struggle from the Paterno fan point of view.
“Joe Paterno was very literally….not just the face of the university, but the face of college football,” Castillo said. “It’s going to be a lot harder…to hold onto my love for Penn State…if I don’t separate Paterno from that scandal.” Thus, it is this separating of Paterno from the Penn State scandal that enables the alumni and student “..to remain comfortable with being a fan of the university.”
The second hurdle is fan identity, a key part of which, according to Castillo, is BIRGing, or “Basking In Reflected Glory.” The theory behind fan identity is simple:
“I want to associate myself with winning teams…with successful people,” Castillo said. “The closer I am…the more solid, and the higher, quote unquote, my identity is.”
Castillo cautioned that due to the unique collegial environment, and the “complete immersion in the culture of that university and of that team, and the amount of time those students are BIRGing at Penn State,” dissociating themselves from Paterno is nearly impossible.
“My identity is tied up into Penn State, and specifically Penn State football and now this happens. If I have been spending so many years, basking in the glory of this team, am I a bad person because the coaching staff are bad people? And how do I reconcile that? And again, the solution seems to be to separate Paterno from the scandal.”
When asked about Paterno’s continued College Football Hall of Fame enshrinement (he was inducted in 2008), Phil Marwill, spokesman of the National Football Foundation, responded via email that “the NFF Honors Court has not met to discuss this issue, and they will do so when they meet in the fall.”
The question remains: what is Joseph Vincent Paterno’s legacy? While Jay and Scott Paterno did not respond to requests how they would describe their father’s legacy, Morelli refers to a quote from Paterno himself, in which the Hall of Famer, scholar and philanthropist wished to be remembered for being more than a football coach.
“In many ways, he will be. But not for the reasons he wanted to be.”