This first sentence needs to be a disclaimer: I’m not here to debate over what Joe Paterno did or did not do. The words you’re about to read won’t cover his actions — some messed up things happened, but they’re in the past now and I don’t feel like diving into a complex legal, moral and ethical challenge that really is probably over the head of a 20 year old college student. If I can’t even decide over chocolate milk in my Reese’s Puffs or 2%, I’m in no place to tackle a case with this severity.
What I’m more interested about is the man’s legacy. Here’s a guy who was viewed an Ace (by most) for his entire career, until the last 78 days of his life (Sandusky news broke on Nov. 5, 2011). As LZ Granderson writes, “In a lot of ways, life was easier when we didn’t know as much. We could have mourned a hero like Paterno and not feel conflicted” (http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/23/opinion/granderson-paterno-conflicted/index.html).
But here’s the thing I’ve been bouncing around in the days following Joepa’s death: I don’t think Penn State cares. I don’t think they’re conflicted. Before you go haywire, hear me out.
What I mean is the student body of Penn State, I believe, is going to turn Joe Paterno into a mortal legend in State College, Pa. Now, understand I write this from Ithaca College and not Happy Valley so I don’t have my finger on the pulse of Penn State but I have some rationale to back this up.
When Joepa got fired the students took to the streets in protest (http://news.yahoo.com/joe-paterno-fired-penn-state-students-riot-protest-082630177.html). They knew the facts. But the majority of students wanted Joepa back. Why? Maybe they can’t understand the severity of child molestation because college students for the most part don’t have children? Maybe football and emotion trumps rationale? Or maybe they’re just more forgiving than the rest of the world because Penn State was the only place that rioted in favor of Paterno? Or maybe they remembered the presence he brought to the community and presents he gave back to the school ($4 million)?
I don’t really care why, they just did.
And because it’s been said The Media incriminated Paterno and there is so much Joepa bashing going around — which again I’m not saying is either deserving or undeserving — I think the students of Penn State are going to take an “us vs. the world approach” in handling Joepa’s legacy. That’s why I called him an “underground legend” in the title — it’s like there’s a nasty whitehead on the cheek of Paterno’s legacy, it’s tainted.
But underground because in State College I think he will continue to be The Man (a legacy that used ProActiv). And as waves of students flow in and out of the university, that mantra will remain constant with the students. It’ll be an attitude that’s just handed down from class to class. Who knows maybe it’ll even become uncool to not like Paterno. He’ll always have that part of the world. And from a man who stayed planted in one college for longer than my parents have been alive, maybe that’s how he would have wanted it.
If I had money and time, I’d want to poll Penn State students on their feelings about Joepa every five or ten years just to see what people were thinking.
But hey I could be all wrong, and maybe college students should stick to cereal.