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The Sense-Making of Joe Paterno’s Legacy

January 24, 2012

Joe Paterno, arguably the greatest college football coach in history, died Sunday, January 22, 2012, from cancer. His passing will set in motion a process that is a quite natural one for human beings when contemplating another’s demise: The forming of a final impression of the person and his significance.  Such a cognitive task would ordinarily be a no-brainer.  Death often catapults an ordinary person to heroic status, and an already established hero who dies becomes an even greater hero (Allison & Goethals, 2012).  But the case of Joe Paterno is far from ordinary. His story certainly contains many elements of the familiar tale of The Man Who Fell From Grace, but the social perceiver seeking to understand its meaning finds a confusing story replete with attributional ambiguity, unusual timing, inherent unfairness, and powerful social realities.

Here are some of the pieces of this impression formation puzzle.  Let’s begin with the baseline view of Paterno. As recently as this past Fall, he was larger than life, a true legend.  Paterno won more games than any other coach and led his Penn State teams with distinction for half a century.  He seemed eternal, a welcome fixture in a sports world filled with greed and corruption.  Everyone knew that Paterno’s ethics were above reproach; his motto was “success with honor.”  Paterno was a hero in the truest sense of the word.

Then in early November we, as social perceivers, got wind of information that seemed to conflict with the baseline. We learned that in 2002 an assistant told Paterno that he witnessed a former coach at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, raping a young boy at Penn State’s football complex. We learned that Paterno immediately reported the incident to his superiors at Penn State, but those administrators covered up the incident, allowing Sandusky to continue his reign of crime for years.  These higher-ups at Penn State succumbed to the Bathsheba syndrome (Forsyth, 2011) – the all-too-frequent moral failure of leadership.

Observers of Paterno’s behavior agreed that he did the right thing in reporting the incident but disagreed about whether he did enough of the right thing.  Judgments of Paterno were polarized, with Paterno’s supporters deeming him a convenient scapegoat for the irresponsible conduct of his superiors who engineered the cover-up.  Others felt very differently; to them Paterno was just another self-important fat-cat showing more interest in saving the Penn State football program’s reputation than in saving children from a rapist.

Paterno learned the hard way that heroes do not get the benefit of attributional doubt.  As a general rule, people hold heroes to a higher moral standard and harbor an almost perverse schadenfreude delight in watching heroes crash and burn (Allison & Goethals, 2011).  The Penn State board of trustees fired him, and in the days that followed statues of Paterno’s likeness were removed, awards honoring him were renamed, and his reputation appeared to be irreparably sullied.

Those of us who were unsure about how harshly to judge Paterno were moved by strong outcries from victims of child abuse.  This chorus of voices emphasized the absurdity of believing that it was more important to defend Paterno’s career achievements on the football field than it was to defend children from predators like Sandusky.  When forming evaluations of others, none of us is immune to social influence.  The social reality pointed to a gaping wound in our society’s psyche caused, in part, by people taking child sexual abuse too lightly.

There is no doubt that people believe in guilt by association.  Perhaps balance theory can explain this idea (Heider, 1958).  If social perceivers categorized Paterno as a member of Penn State’s upper administration, and that administration acted with horrid irresponsibility, then in the minds of social perceivers Paterno had to share some of the culpability.  After firing Paterno, the new leadership at Penn State went to great lengths to disassociate themselves with anyone connected to Paterno.  The interim football coach, Tom Bradley, had absolutely nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky or with Paterno’s handling of the Sandusky situation.  Yet because Bradley was a long-time assistant of Paterno, he stood no chance of being named the permanent head coach, despite the fact that he was the logical successor to Paterno.  Bradley’s complete innocence of any wrongdoing was irrelevant.  He was guilty by second-hand association.

Further complicating our impressions of Paterno were reports surfacing only days after his dismissal that he was battling lung cancer.  A few short weeks later he fell and injured himself at his home.  Only weeks after that we learned that Paterno died, setting the stage for the emergence of the “death positivity” bias: the tendency to judge the dead more positively than the living (Allison, Eylon, Beggan, & Bachelder, 2009). As if discerning Paterno’s legacy wasn’t challenging enough, his scandal, illness, injury, and death – all compressed in a remarkably brief time period – have further muddied our attempts to form a clear final impression of him.  The confusion placed Penn State officials in a conundrum:  Do they honor Paterno’s death with great pomp and fanfare, or do they take the subdued route out of respect for the victims of child molestation?

Doing the right thing and reaching the right conclusions about Paterno defy easy answers.  So much happened so quickly that our cognitive and emotional dust hasn’t had a chance to settle yet.  Paterno’s death, of course, adds the greatest complication to our attempts to understand the man.  Our research on death’s effect on social judgments shows that death not only elevates our evaluations of people but also tends to crystalize those evaluations.  That is, our judgments of the dead are much less malleable than our judgments of the living, a phenomenon we’ve called the frozen in time effect (Eylon & Allison, 2005).  And so when we say that people are now forming a final impression of Paterno, we mean that literally.  Death seals our impressions.

Joe Paterno’s story may be unique, but it is certainly not the only tale of a celebrity whose mixed legacy and ultimate death have made forming a final impression of him or her difficult. Michael Jackson is a striking example.  Never convicted of charges of child molestation, Jackson was nevertheless convicted in the court of public opinion and was attacked for freakishly altering his appearance through multiple facial surgeries.  His death left people confused about what to think of him, although most journalists have taken a positive, conciliatory approach about his life.  In death, Joe Paterno may also be given the benefit of the doubt.  In fact, his death may do more to rehabilitate his image than anything he could have done in life.

Visit Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them for more information about the social psychology of heroes.


Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Beggan, J. K., & Bachelder, J. (2009). The demise of leadership: Positivity and negativity in evaluations of dead leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 115-129.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them. New York: Oxford University Press.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2012).  The seven paradoxes of heroism.  Personality and Social Psychology Connections.

Eylon, D., & Allison, S. T. (2005).  The frozen in time effect in evaluations of the dead.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1708-1717.

Forsyth, D. (2011). The Bathsheba Syndrome: When leadership fails. Personality and Social Psychology Connections.

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons.


July 12, 2012

On July 12, 2012, new information surfaced about Joe Paterno’s involvement in the cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation activities.  An investigation headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh revealed that Paterno directly participated in the cover-up.  Freeh’s report minces no words.  To avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University – including Joe Paterno – “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large.”

Most condemning of all was the report’s contention that Paterno was aware of an earlier investigation of Sandusky in 1998.  Email records tell the tale.  Despite knowledge of this history, Paterno failed to take any action before or after his assistant coach came to him with his eyewitness account in 2002.  This failure occurred “even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.”  Regarding the failed leadership at Penn State, the report revealed that “although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by university officials,” including Paterno and the university president, for Sandusky’s victims.

Those of us who were reserving judgment until the dust had settled and the facts were known are now in a position to reach a final evaluation of the Joe Paterno era.  No doubt those close to Paterno and to the Penn State community will still defend the man and his reputation.  Emotion and self-interest can cloud judgment.  But for the majority of us who sifted through the complexities of the case and wanted to reach a fair conclusion, the Louis Freeh report is unequivocal.  Joe Paterno was indisputably a legendary football coach, but in the end, he showed a colossal lapse in judgment.  His irresponsibility may have permitted Sandusky to spend another decade ruining the lives of untold numbers of children.

The legacy of Paterno is now forever tarnished.  In our research on heroes, we’ve uncovered instances of many great individuals who self-destruct seemingly overnight.  People whose status quickly changes from hero to villain, or from villain to hero, are called transposed heroes (Allison & Goethals, 2013).   Former U.S. Senator John Edwards is a recent example, as is basketball great LeBron James, who may have transposed twice.  As long as human beings achieve great things and then succumb to pride, there will never be a shortage of transposed heroes.  For Penn State, the daunting task of rebuilding a shattered reputation is in progress.  For the victims of Sandusky, the lifelong process of healing is now hopefully underway.


Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals.  London, England: Routledge.



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