Framing Paterno’s legacy

Media like their subjects to be easy:  their heroes to be heroes, their villains to be villains.

Celebrities are wonderful, until they do something that proves they aren’t wonderful.  Stories must be framed to make it easy for readers to understand what really is happening.

And then a story like that of Joe Paterno comes along and it makes media’s job so much more difficult. For 50 years, Paterno was the ideal of college football coaches. His 409 wins were the most of any Division I football coach. He graduated 80 percent of his students. He gave money back to his school. He was easily framed as the granddad of college football — until last fall when news about Jerry Sandusky broke. Sandusky, the former Paterno assisted is currently charged with over 40 counts of sexual abuse with boys under the age of 15. Another Paterno assistant, Mike McQueary told Paterno that he saw Sandusky raping a young boy. Paterno notified his superiors but never approached Sandusky or the police about the incident. Paterno could have done more than just report his knowledge of Sandusky’s misdeeds. He should have helped those kids.

The media then turned on Paterno. He had to be fired, even if the way Penn State officials fired him was cowardly. His reputation was ruined. Paterno was framed as just short of an accomplice to Sandusky’s horrors. He was the man who did nothing while the monster raped young boys in the locker room.

And then Paterno died. His death, on Jan. 22, 2012 changed the frame. First, the media didn’t get it right, reporting his death one day before it actually occurred. Then the media found themselves taking another look at the story that has dominated sports headlines since November.

A backlash started. A story on said this of Paterno:

“Coach, educator, devoted family man – and hero wronged. That’s how former Penn State head coach Paterno was remembered yesterday at a public memorial on the university’s campus.”

The backlash continued. The Los Angeles times quoted Phil Knight, owner of Nike, who said this about the media: “”This much is clear to me: If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation and not in Joe Paterno’s response,” Knight said. had a blog from Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright, a sexuality educator who defended Paterno’s actions.

The Philadelphia Inquirer questioned the scandal’s role in Paterno’s death and Inquirer columnist Stu Bykofsky  played the role of St. Peter and admitted a sainted Jo Pa past the Pearly Gates.

Was this the new frame for Paterno? Were the media wrong when they laid so much blame on his role, or lack of a role in stopping Sandusky? How should the media portray Paterno?

One of the best answers came from the Decatur Herald-Review’s Mark Tupper, a columnist who covers the University of Illinois. Tupper wrote that maybe a man can be good and still do a bad thing.

But that’s difficult. It calls on the media to break their routine. Paterno was a good man and a good coach. And he did wrong. Where does that leave him? It’s not an easy answer and media have struggled to come to terms with this. No easy frame for Paterno exists. Should his lack of action erase 50 years of positive action. Do the thousands of lives he affected in a positive manner cancel the lives his inaction ruined?

Columnists still are struggling with this question. A Google news search shows more than 5,000 hits using the words “Joe Paterno” and “legacy.” More will be written. Some will denounce, others defend and a few will try to step away from the routine and question what a man’s legacy really means.

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