I’ve never been into college football.

In fact, I’ve never been into college sports. We have pro sports in this country, and the idea of watching amateurs compete in a supposedly more “pure” form of athletics never made sense to me—especially since those supposedly pure athletes were reeling in almost as many millions of dollars as their professional counterparts.

Because I was never into college football, I never really cared one way or another about Joe Paterno. I never liked him; I never hated him. I never respected him, but I never looked at him as being worthy of disrespect. I was always aware of who he was, what his reputation was, and why he was important, but I was always aware of these things from a distance.

I always got the idea of Joe Paterno. I was just never moved so much as an inch by it.

Now that he’s dead, and his reputation has taken a farther fall from grace than any American figure I can personally remember, I find the man endlessly fascinating. Not as an object of derision, or conversely as an icon, but as a cautionary tale.

When the Freeh report came out recently, indicating there was evidence that Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials had protected their pedophiliac colleague, Jerry Sandusky, the information sealed the deal on how Paterno would be remembered. Whereas once the school had built statues to the gentleman, whereas once someone saw fit to paint a halo over his head, now there was proof—which Paterno himself was too dead to protest—that the once revered coach had done the unthinkable, had allowed Sandusky to go on raping children, to avoid bad PR for the Penn State football program.

What’s interesting about this isn’t just that Paterno did it, but that his legacy can never recover. It’s unusual because, in this country, disgraced celebrities usually bounce back. Just look at Robert Downey, Jr., who started as a star, then became a joke and a junkie, before being redeemed and becoming bigger than ever. Or look at Mike Tyson. Remember when Iron Mike was a hated, convicted rapist? Now he’s a major motion picture cameo machine.

These people and their reputations bounced back because they had the chance to—because the people stayed alive long enough to do something different and be redeemed in the public eye. Joe Paterno will never have this opportunity, because he got fired, then died, then information came out about him afterwards. And that’s not to say he deserves to be redeemed (he doesn’t); just that it’s interesting and unusual that he won’t get the chance to.

But even though Paterno’s legacy is not now what it once was, I don’t think it’s what people think it is, either. Most of us will remember him for the vile thing he did, and how that vile thing seemed to cancel out all the good things he did before it. It’s like the biggest case ever of “What have you done for me lately?” where it just so happened that the latest thing this person did was also, because of his cancer, the last.

But I think what we should really remember about Paterno is the surprise that so many people experienced when the truth came out about his actions. And the reason that surprise ought to be remembered is because it should have come as no surprise.

Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We’re conditioned to think this is only true of foreign dictators, but it’s actually true across human society, on every level—personal, familial, and communal. It’s as easy to be corrupted as a head football coach as it is as a high school principal. And just as easily as a president can be corrupted, so can the CEO of an influential company.

The reason power corrupts is because power protects itself. It believes in itself, and believes in its purpose. Many powerful people start out with the best intentions, but as their power and influence grow, they stop fighting for X and start fighting for their right to be the person who fights for it.

Joe Paterno, in his own little way, had as much power as anyone anywhere. Did he have it over a country? No. But he had it over a valuable program that meant a whole lot to a whole lot of people. We should not be surprised that he did what he did, because this is what power does to human beings. It makes men who might otherwise seem to be worthy of halos cover up for child rapists just to protect their positions of influence.

When people think about Joe Paterno, think about his life, think about his legacy—this is the thing that they should think about. Not who he once was, not who he became, but what the contrast between the two proves about humanity. No one is perfect. Nobody. Nowhere. And even someone who seems so close to it shouldn’t be trusted with authority blindly. The corrupting force of power is simply too strong.

And think of it this way: If someone so revered they built statues to him could abuse a power as seemingly insignificant as football, just imagine what some of these politicians we’re so lukewarm about could do in positions that affect all our lives.


Jonathan David Morris is the author of For Whom The Rebel Flag Flies, available now for Kindle and Nook.

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