Ripe for ongoing sociological study: the process of creating Joe Paterno’s legacy

With the news that long-time Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had passed away, I thought about how his legacy will develop in the long-term, say 10, 20, 50 years down the road. This is ripe for sociological study: historical events are simply not reported as facts later on. Instead, are interpreted by society in certain ways based on a variety of factors (sportwriters, fans, political leaders, outcomes in court, historians, advocacy groups, etc.) and Paterno’s legacy will be no different. Here are three scenarios that I consider plausible regarding Paterno’s legacy:

1. Eventually, Paterno’s coaching record wins out and he is primarily remembered for having the most coaching wins in Division I. This record will be hard to pass, particularly in an era when coaching changes are more frequent as more programs expect to win big every year. Plenty of recordholders and winning coaches have unsavory parts of their lives (for example, Bear Bryant wasn’t exactly friendly and Nick Saban is known as repeatedly jumping ship for more money) and Paterno is not the first or the last. Paterno will mostly be remembered positively for having 409 career wins.

2. In contrast, Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky scandal and in other recent matters (some player discipline and arrest issues in recent years) cloud his legacy and people remember his moral failings more than his wins or service to Penn State. Perhaps this will be closely linked to the Sandusky trial; the longer this stays in the news, the more people will remember Paterno’s involvement. More details will emerge and people will continue to wonder why Paterno didn’t act more forcefully. Especially since this is a scandal involving sex and children which tends to stir the American public, Paterno’s legacy is forever tainted.

3. I wonder if there will also be a Penn State/national split that will endure for decades. At Penn State, in Pennsylvania, and among alumni, Paterno will be revered not just for his wins but his way of doing things, his longevity at the school, and his philanthropy. While the scandal is a black mark, this does not outweigh his decades of doing good for Penn State. Nationally, I think there is a lot of head-scratching over the close-knit nature of the Penn State community (there are people who are still that close?) and his legacy will look different in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles than around Penn State.

Now, we only have to wait a few decades to find out what actually happens.

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