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Joe Paterno’s Legacy: Redux

July 13, 2012

In November of 2011 the news broke. A former coach at Penn State University, Jerry Sandusky, was to be indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys, following a three-year investigation. In the following months a number of administrators at the University resigned, including head football coach Joe Paterno.  Paterno was suffering from advanced stage lung cancer and died of complication of that disease in January of 2012.

Two notable events have occurred since Paterno passed away: First, Sandusky was found guilty, and is now a convicted sex offender. Second, on July 12, 2012, new information surfaced about Paterno’s involvement in the cover-up of 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.” This additional information requires that I add a post-script to my analysis of the challenges (at that time) of reaching a conclusion about Joe Paterno’s legacy — which I posted earlier this year (The Sense-Making of Joe Paterno’s Legacy).

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.  Penn State itself commissioned the report, and the bottom line could not have been more devastating to the keystone state’s flagship school.  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 prideful arrogance, there will never be a shortage of transposed heroes.  For Penn State, the daunting task of settling lawsuits and rebuilding a shattered reputation is in progress.  For the victims of Sandusky, the lifelong process of healing the unspeakable wounds is now hopefully underway.


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

Leary, M. (2012). John Edwards’ modular mind.  Personality and Social Psychology Connections

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