A ‘What If’ Game with Joe Paterno

By Eric Zanzucchi (@ericzanzucchi)

The Freeh Report was released Thursday confirming all the worst fears about the Penn State administration. The school’s president, vice president, athletic director, and head football coach all had knowledge that there were multiple incidents of sexual contact with minors on their campus. They decided not to report them in order to protect the reputation of the school.

People within the Penn State community still have such a high opinion of Joe Paterno. I heard one former player say on ESPN that he was a man of “high integrity”, which seems like a silly thing to say in light of his most recent actions. That got me thinking of the last thing I heard Paterno say, “I wish I had done more”. He may have done a few more recorded interviews after that, but not too long after that comment his health began to deteriorate. He went into silence and died a few months later.

America is a country that is very quick to forgive; we’ve seen countless examples of that throughout recent history.

What I’m suggesting is that it is possible the timing of his death did more to damage his reputation, than his actual actions. He died when the perception of him was at its absolute worst and that perception is now frozen in our memories. What if he was in good health and lived another five years? Assuming he is the high integrity guy that all his players and coaches say he is, he could have done any number of things to rehabilitate his image. He could have done charity work. He could speak out, apologize, and admit his mistakes; there was no shortage of people who were willing to put a camera on him. Directly after the story broke on that fateful Monday Paterno wanted to talk to the media and tell his side of the story, but his camp advised against it. Who knows what he would have said in a statement at that time?

As with most things in life, the truth about Joe Paterno probably lies somewhere in the middle. He doesn’t have as impeccable of a career and life as we once thought he did. However, he’s probably not as bad of a guy as he’s now perceived. Unfortunately for him he will have no chance to change the perception of him.