Joe Paterno and the Cult of Personality


A little bit of North Korea comes to State College, Pennsylvania.

The shocking revelations of the Freeh report continue to reverberate. Rick Reilly has written a powerful article, in which he expresses remorse over his own role in building the cult of Joe Paterno. Back in 1986, he wrote an article about Paterno for Sports Illustrated. While he was staying in State College, he received a phone call one night from a Penn State professor whom he does not identify:

    “Are you here to take part in hagiography?” he said.

    “What’s hagiography?” I asked.

    “The study of saints,” he said. “You’re going to be just like the rest, aren’t you? You’re going to make Paterno out to be a saint. You don’t know him. He’ll do anything to win. What you media are doing is dangerous.”

    Jealous egghead, I figured.

It seems that Reilly owes that “jealous egghead” an apology. This makes you wonder how many other people ignored warnings that Paterno wasn’t what he appeared to be. Or how many people were ignored, who argued that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to shower so much adulation on a man who was merely coaching a football team. “What you media are doing is dangerous.” It was dangerous, and it eventually blew up in people’s faces. When the Penn State Board of Trustees rightly fired Paterno, students rioted on campus. Look at the comment threads on sports blogs, and you will find that some people are still in a state of denial about what Paterno did. All this is simply madness.

If there is one thing that life teaches us, it is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Joe Paterno, we were told, built a winning college football team while managing to remain completely principled. Yeah, right. In recent years, it became obvious that Paterno was coach in name only, yet people played along with the pretense, because the myth of Paterno had to be maintained at all costs.

And now we know just how much it cost.

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