Penn State should have punted on the Joe Paterno 50th anniversary ceremony
The anniversary celebration expected on Saturday in State College is tone-deaf to the real issues at hand
Penn State is actually going through with Saturday's tone-deaf commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno's first game.
Penn State said Thursday the ceremony will "focus on the commitment he had to student-athletes and academics, as well as highlights of the 1966 game." The two co-captains from 1966 will participate in the coin toss. There will be introductions of other players and video presentations on Paterno's impact to his players.
"Coach Paterno wanted academic success not only for his players but also for every student who came through Penn State," Nittany Lions athletic director Sandy Barbour said in a statement. "Together with his wife, Sue, they helped countless students become leaders and earn a Penn State diploma. Our plans are consistent with the wishes of the Paterno family as well, with a focus on the players and their accomplishments at Penn State and beyond."
Paterno's legacy remains complicated and unfinished because of how he handled the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
Just two months ago, unsealed court documents revealed allegations that Paterno knew about Sandusky's abuse of kids as early as 1976. These were unproven accusations in a civil suit under sworn testimony, which Penn State chose not to challenge. Still, the whole Paterno controversy only surfaced publicly because Penn State tried to get its insurance company to pay off settlements to Sandusky victims.
So here comes Penn State on Saturday against Temple with a commemoration that may satisfy nobody and anger everybody. Note to Penn State: When your administrators won't conduct interviews about the commemoration in advance, as Penn State refuses to do, it's a good sign you don't need to honor Paterno right now.
Paterno has not been officially recognized in Beaver Stadium since his last game on Oct. 29, 2011. The Paterno statue came down from outside the stadium. And now is the right time to honor him?
Why now? Fundraising is probably a big reason since the school is going through another capital campaign. There are plans to renovate Beaver Stadium. As I wrote in May, some major Paterno supporters won't write checks until they see him honored. The Paterno divide threatens to impact the football program for decades.
No matter how much gets spoken nationally about Paterno, the heart of the story is still very much a local issue as the Penn State community tries to move forward. What I believe, or other national media think, is far less interesting to me than how Penn State people feel.
"To the casual observer, it would be important to have us all rolling in the same direction, and most importantly, for the university to have resolved this matter," said Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State board member who has fought to clear Paterno's name. "I think they should honor Joe. Commemoration is a lot different than honor.
"I would say the overwhelming majority of the Penn State community supports honoring Joe. None of us have any idea what this commemoration involves so we really can't speak to anything more than to some it sounds nice. But the bigger question is will the Paternos be part of that? Part of the honoring of Joe includes Sue Paterno (his wife)."
Sue Paterno issued a statement that said in part, "While we are pleased they have acknowledged Joe's contributions, we communicated to the administration that we would like the focus for this event to be on the players. The university has confirmed that this is their plan, and we commend them for their approach."
But there is far from overwhelming support for this ceremony. The Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper, criticized the decision and said the university needs "a reality check."
"This is our Penn State," The Daily Collegian's editorial board wrote. "It is a Penn State without Joe Paterno. It is a Penn State that is still trying to rebuild, make amends and propel forward. Those of us here now are beyond ready to move on."
I asked two friends who are Penn State graduates from the 1990s how they feel about the ceremony. There's confusion and some anger.
"By the time I arrived on campus in the early 90s, Coach Paterno's reputation had surpassed anything else on campus, save his ego," my friend Michael said. "He felt that he was bigger than the school, bigger than the administration, even bigger than the governor. He was JoePa, and who were these random other men? It was only a matter of time for something bad to happen to someone who let their own ego get in the way of their acts, but nobody in their wildest dreams ever imagined that it would play out like it did.
"He and his wife did so many good things for Penn State students, faculty and alumni, but all of that will be forever overshadowed by his inaction and his belief that he was greater than the law. Because Penn State -- and many colleges -- value sports over academics and educating young people, these kinds of tone-deaf, insensitive, and wasteful displays will continue. I am proud of my Penn State education and degree, but I am embarrassed by many of the actions that the school's leaders have taken in the name of sports or the great JoePa. What about honoring the victims of these horrible crimes, or the whistleblowers, instead of finding yet another reason to feed the ego?"
My friend Andrew, another Penn State alum, believes it's a mistake to recognize Paterno now because many will interpret the ceremony as tolerance toward Sandusky's crimes. Andrew noted that Paterno was a "positive force" in the lives of his players and was devoted to advancing academics in a way most football coaches do not.
"Yes, he was also -- like dozens of parents, coaches, teachers and others in the State College community -- an indifferent reporter of child abuse," Andrew said. "To me, this is not an excusable failure, but it seems more understandable when I consider that many people in the same situation didn't do any better. In the long run, I'm not opposed to honoring him, flaws and all, but I don't see why we need to do it now."
In Paterno's first game on Sept. 17, 1966, he elected to punt on third down three times from deep in his own territory, according to a story by PennLive.com. Each punt brought louder boos from the home crowd.
Sometimes in life, though, you've got to punt. Penn State should have taken a lesson out of Paterno's playbook 50 years ago.
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