Jayne: It’s difficult to understand Joe Paterno’s legacy

Greg Jayne: Commentary

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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After days and weeks and months of seemingly endless conjecture and I-don’t-have-time-to-really-think-about-it opinions, let’s take a deep breath and listen for a moment to Curt Warner.

“That’s still to be told,” Warner, a Camas resident, said when asked about Joe Paterno’s legacy at Penn State. “The only thing you can talk about when dealing with a legacy is time. There are so many questions to be answered.”

Which, of course, points out the problem of short-term analysis of a historic figure’s long-term impact. Perspective, as overused words go, needs to ferment and age before it can be properly consumed.

And so, as we ponder the death of Paterno, a man whose public persona was inconceivably altered in the final months of his life, we decide to call somebody who actually knew him well. We decide to contact Warner, who, from 1979-82, was one of the best players ever to wear a Penn State uniform.

“The thing about Coach Paterno is the fact that we talked about football, but also about life,” said Warner, whose son, Jonathan, has accepted a football scholarship to Penn State. “He was all about us doing the right thing, and he backed it up with his actions.”

Three months ago, that statement wouldn’t have seemed so ironic. Three months ago, Paterno remained revered and nearly beyond reproach.

But then came the arrest of former assistant Jerry Sandusky for child rape. And then came revelations that Paterno informed his bosses of allegations he had heard but stopped short of doing more. And then came the firing that rocked the college football world.

And as we stand in the wake of the unfathomable turn of events, it remains impossible to make sense or context of it all.

Not that Phil Knight has any reservations. The Nike founder, speaking at a memorial service for Paterno on Thursday, spoke of how the coach was his personal hero.

“This much is clear to me,” Knight said. “If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation and not in Joe Paterno’s response.”

Knight was emotional. He was articulate. He was sincere. And while his defense of his friend was compelling, it also fell short of recognizing the real victims in this sordid affair — the children allegedly raped by Sandusky.

That is why any conjecture about Paterno’s legacy comes off as so much mindless blather. Anybody who feels compelled to discuss how Paterno will be remembered should first be required to read the grand jury report that resulted in Sandusky’s arrest. Then, after you’ve finished throwing up, feel free to proceed.

This is not meant to denigrate Paterno. This is not meant to take issue with Knight’s comments or those of Paterno’s other supporters. It’s simply meant to point out that we still don’t know all the facts in the case; that we’re still reeling from the abhorrent allegations against Sandusky; that Paterno isn’t the villain in this case, but neither is he the victim.

Does some horrific judgment overshadow 60 years of good works and millions of dollars in donations to a university? I don’t know. Ask me in about 10 years.

“He said he wished he could have done more,” Warner said. “I wasn’t there; I couldn’t tell you whether he could have done more.

“At some point you have to let due process take its course. Because, God knows, we’ve talked about it a lot.”

Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531 or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne