There's a lesson in Paterno's downfall, but few will heed it

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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What happened to Joe Paterno can happen to any coach who amasses too much power. (AP)  
What happened to Joe Paterno can happen to any coach who amasses too much power. (AP)  

There were 245 FBS and FCS football coaches and their staffs watching Joe Paterno's end, and their minds were bent backward.

Paterno was the last bulletproof coach, the last true living statue in the profession. They all envied him and the temple he built, and they all daydreamed about having his résumé -- one place, one home, one legacy. The master of his universe.

And now, he has left in greater disgrace than any coach who ever went winless, or got caught paying players. And those 245 men and their aides are never going to forget it.

But one wonders how many of them will see the lesson of Paterno's end clearly, and how many of them will react the way coaches typically do -- by circling the wagons and walling off the intrusions of an uncontrollable world.

The lesson that needs to be learned is that coaches are part of a larger place, and that there are standards that must be met even when they conflict with the iron-fisted top-down defend-the-brand world in which they live.

And yes, there are many more examples than merely turning in sexual predators. There is the matter of being part of a greater whole -- the welfare of a university, its educational and social mission, and its students and fellow workers.

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What we suspect, though, is that many coaches will see that Paterno fell not because he erred, but because nobody had his back, that loyalty rather than morality had broken down. That the rightful and unlimited power of the football coach had been violated by outsiders.

They are the ones who won't understand that there must be limits even on the most powerful people and the money they generate. They're the ones who won't want to understand. They know strength, and they know how to wall off their worlds from the prying eyes of even their nominal superiors.

They are the ones who will see this as death by media, as punishment by mob rule, as the most contemptible form of indignity and disrespect for someone who deserved better, and whose body of work far outweighed one terrible judgment.

They are the ones who are wrong.

How wrong, though? In a practical way, most coaches and administrators would call this such an extreme set of circumstances that they would not apply to any other universities or any other employees. They would continue as they have, because the notion of protecting the entity at all costs is still central to their belief system.

And because there are far more Graham Spaniers out there, serving their coaches rather than the other way around. And there are far more Tim Curleys, who know how their dinner rolls are buttered.

This is the disconnect that led to the nightmare at Penn State -- the notion that there were people who were above even the laws of human decency. Paterno met the most minimal of burdens, and even if he hadn't stood for so long as a moral exemplar in a cynical business, that could not possibly be good enough.

And 245 other men have to see that, and the scenes of Wednesday night, and process it as best they can. They must know, though, that part of the problem that led to this is the idea that football is its own citadel, an independent fiefdom that borrows the university name without having to adhere to the requirements of the university. This willful refusal to be part of the greater whole takes many forms, and none as extreme as this, but it is what every coach comes to believe as his due.

It is not, except for the fact that the presidents and athletic directors who have allowed this business structure to endure and even thrive -- who have avoided the responsibility of maintaining the priorities that makes universities valuable because the money is too good, or because the money coming in has already been spent.

That's why Joe Paterno finished his career in such misery. Because nobody would be his conscience when his own failed him, and the fear of upending the system was greater than the rage of housing an alleged child molester. That comes from power being accumulated without being measured, and that is not only Penn State's legacy.

And in 245 other universities, that is the lesson that should be absorbed and accepted. In too many places, it will not.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com

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