Back in 1919, when Chicago White Sox star player Shoeless Joe Jackson admitted he knew about the fix to rig the World Series, it became one of the biggest stories of the year. Never before had the news media been so keenly interested in a sports story. Following his admission, the plea from millions of baseball fans could be heard across America – “say it ain’t so, Joe!” But it was so, and Jackson was banned from the major leagues for life.
Today, 92 years later, millions of fans are saying the same thing to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno – “say it ain’t so, Joe!” But just like in 1919, it is so and Paterno’s fall from grace has been immediate and will permanent. This sports scandal will become the biggest news story ever to hit the multi-billion dollar U.S. college sports industry.
Paterno is, or at least was, a legend – not just at Penn State, but throughout the entire football world. A man of integrity who ran a clean program and was as just as interested about seeing his players graduate as he was about their performance on the field. He donated millions to the Penn State library, the conference championship trophy bore his name and many called him the greatest football coach of all time. He was universally revered at Penn State, almost like a god.
But all that is lost forever. Despite a spectacular career spanning almost 50 years, Paterno will always be remembered for what he didn’t do and not for what he did do. In grand jury testimony, he admitted to knowing that one of his assistants had been accused of sexually assaulting children. He admitted telling his supervisor, but his admission that he took no further action has stunned an entire nation. Like Shoeless Joe, Paterno could have and should have done more and that will never be forgotten.
For its part, Penn State has tried to put its best PR face forward; firing Paterno and the university president, and cooperating fully with police and state investigators. But there is only so much that can be done. The media has latched onto the story like a dog on a bone and in the weeks and months ahead, when more victims come forward and more shocking stories come out, the reputation of this legendary coach and the school where he coached will continue to wallow in the gutter. No amount of PR can ever change that.