Scandal sullies Joe Paterno's legacy

The idea that Joe Paterno would be forced out of Penn State on moral grounds defies belief.

More than six decades of achievement, an entire adult life committed to the advancement of the core mission of his university, could not withstand the sin of omission committed by Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case.

It is not the something that Paterno did that brought him to this fate -- a firing by phone by Penn State's board of trustees Wednesday evening. It is the something that he did not do to stop Sandusky.

"This is a tragedy," Paterno said in the statement released Wednesday morning announcing his intention to retire at the end of the 2011 season. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

The idea that Paterno's legacy, built with the highest of ideals, will be stained by the vilest of scandals should test the faith of all of us. It is simple and glib to say that American sport's most famous white socks covered feet of clay. But if we cannot believe that JoePa knew to do what is good and right, than in whom, pray tell, can we believe?

Over 62 seasons, the last 46 as head coach, Paterno held his players, his university and himself to a higher standard. The "grand experiment," as he put it in his younger days, proved that the best college football could be played within the rules by athletes who achieved on the field and in the classroom.

Paterno could be imperious. He certainly could be holier-than-thou. But behind all of that posturing, Paterno stood for the ideals of virtue and honor as expressed through the silly, violent and completely enthralling game of college football.

Paterno, weeks shy of his 85th birthday, didn't stand for all that anymore as much as he stooped ever so slightly for it. As his body began to betray him, Paterno endured. He continued to thrive as the pressures of his business set aside his contemporaries.

Darrell Royal, only two years Paterno's senior, burned out in 1976.

Bear Bryant died in 1983, his insides eaten out by the stress and what he did to alleviate it.

Bobby Bowden, who matched Paterno win for win as seasons turned into decades, got pushed aside in 2009 when he stopped winning enough.

It must be said that age did not take down Paterno on the football field. He has coached his 46th Penn State team to an 8-1 record. Since he turned 78, which was when the university asked him to resign and he refused, Paterno has gone 66-20 (.767 winning percentage) and coached in two BCS bowls. He has won 409 games, more than any coach in the history of major college football.

Say what you will about the number of games he coached from the press box in recent years, a concession to his physical frailty. But in this bottom-line business, Paterno delivered until the day he stopped coaching.

In truth, age failed him off the field. Paterno failed to grasp the import of what graduate assistant Mike McQueary said to him in March 2002. Paterno, like many in his generation, failed to grasp that society no longer handled such indecencies behind closed doors. Society once referred to the crimes of which Sandusky is accused as unspeakable. Nothing goes unspoken any longer.

This societal change is, in sum, a good thing. The public reaction to what allegedly happened at Penn State and, to be more accurate, what didn't happen, says something about the nature of the horror visited on the victims. Not visited -- visits are brief, and the effects of such crimes leave psychic scars that disfigure for life.

Since Pennsylvania attorney general Linda Kelly released the grand jury's findings in the Sandusky case on Nov. 5, the sort of feeding frenzy that has developed is typically reserved for Hollywood or Washington.

The public is outraged. The public wants blood. The cries of moral superiority have been loud and visceral and long. How could Paterno have not done something?

The answer is no less true for being painful -- the clues all lie in plain sight in retrospect.

The people who accuse Paterno of perpetrating a cover-up ignore a 62-year record of traveling the high road. It is hard enough to reconcile that a combination of deviance and bureaucracy put young boys in danger. But to believe that Paterno knew that Sandusky raped a young boy and did nothing about it does not merely strain credulity, it eviscerates it.

Paterno's failure to act will remain an irreparable stain on a sterling reputation.

"I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case," Paterno said. "I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief."

It is a sad and stunning end to a 20th-century American success story. An Italian-American kid from Brooklyn grew up to become one of the most influential figures in American sports. He supped with Presidents. He transformed a university. And a career that should be celebrated is sullied instead.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.