x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Penn State's fans are unhappy in the Valley

Penn State's legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, shows fans that they can't put their sporting greats on a pedestal so high they think they can't be touched.

A fan pays respects to a statue of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired from his post fired amid allegations that Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator was involved with child sex abuse.
A fan pays respects to a statue of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired from his post fired amid allegations that Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator was involved with child sex abuse.

Just outside the 107,000-seat football stadium in a bucolic Pennsylvania town that reflects its nickname, Happy Valley, they queued up to pose for photos with Joe Paterno.

Well, not the real Paterno. This was a seven-feet tall solid bronze version. Penn State University had commissioned the statue not only in tribute of what would become four-and-a-half decades as head football coach there and a wins total of 409, the most ever on the elite college level.

He was considered sculpture worthy for perceived leadership qualities, based on a commendable team graduation rate that many peers ignore at their schools, adherence to rules governing college sports that often are violated and a loud chorus of praising testimony from former players.

Why not a likeness that was larger than life? After all, that is how Paterno was viewed by his legions of admirers - almost as a father figure, as his affectionate diminutive suggested.

Joe Pa.

For camera-carrying fans attending last Saturday's game, the statue would have to substitute for the real deal. Flesh and blood Paterno was ensconced in his home, the most modest imaginable for a multimillionaire, having been unceremoniously dismissed by telephone amid perhaps the most sordid tale yet associated with American college athletics.

Jerry Sandusky, his former long-time assistant coach, had been indicted a week earlier on multiple counts related to child sex abuse charges. Though Paterno was informed of a heinous incident on school grounds years ago, Sandusky, who had abruptly retired as coach in 1999, was allowed to retain a campus office and an honorary title.

Reports indicate that Paterno notified his titular boss, the athletics director, about the possible criminal act but did not pursue it further with the police or legal authorities.

By any measure, Paterno has contributed mightily to the betterment of humankind. He, along with his wife, has donated millions of dollars to the university library. He has endowed scholarships, paid for professors, helped found an academic department for study of the classics. Scores of Nittany Lions players have carved out fruitful careers and lives.

Becoming a wellspring of generosity and loyalty has its potential downside. An institution of higher learning - or any institution, even the public - can confer so much unchecked power upon someone that he can lose sight of what is expected from a leader.

Paterno was held in such high esteem that nobody had dared address whether an 84-year-old was capable of handling duties 24/7 as overseer of a mega programme. Worse, no line of succession had been arranged, out of apparent fear of offending him or his patriots.

It is no stretch to imagine that Paterno - isolated in a virtual island of a city where the university holds sway and deluded by an outsized sense of self - became convinced that he could wish away alleged abominable conduct by a one time right-hand man as if it never happened.

Concurrently, we wrapped Paterno in a cloak of infallibility based on … what? Because he insisted that players attend class? Because he stayed on the right side of regulations that govern college sports? Because he was altruistic?

Laudable traits, all. But not enough documentation to place Paterno on such a high pedestal than he could not be touched.

With each passing day, the reputation of a decent but flawed person is being scarred beyond recognition.

Pennsylvania's US senators have withdrawn their recommendation for Paterno to receive the nation's loftiest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Big Ten Conference, which counts Penn State as a member, has decided to remove his name from its football championship trophy.

At the university, which afforded Paterno unfettered reign, discussions abound on whether to swab the campus of any memories of him, from the official Paterno Library to the informal Paternoville, the makeshift city of tents pitched by students days before each big game to secure the choicest seats.

There is even speculation about the fate of the statue, the ultimate symbol of legacy.

Most projects and items with the old coach's name attached to them no longer can assume permanence. (An apparent exception is the Joe Paterno Child Development Center at Nike headquarters, according to the company. This is the same organisation that decided not to rename its Tiger Woods Conference Center.)

As troubling times in sports often do, overwhelming sadness in Happy Valley has spawned a teaching moment.

Refrain from hero worship.

Maintain checks and balances for people in high command.

And, if you must erect a solid bronze statue, especially of the living, give it feet of clay.

sports@thenational.ae