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Angry at Paterno - and Ourselves

Are we angry at our own ignorance? Or at those who made us aware of what we didn't know?

It was Hollywood stuff, a paperback novel, the descent of the man whose statue has been carted away like that of a toppled dictator, the crash of a man who virtually had wings.

The reaction has been an overreaction, a response from those who believed that they had been fooled, a large majority.

It's never permissible to bend the truth, but the bending seemingly is more acceptable from a mere mortal.

Which no one closely involved with Penn State football ever would have considered Paterno.

He was a benefactor. He was an academic. He was a god. Most significantly, he was the winningest football coach of all time.

Came the revolution. The king was dragged from his throne, if figuratively, since he already had departed, the throne and this world.

It was as if the good Joe had never existed. It was the old Soviet tactic, revisionist history.

Joe Paterno? He was a dictator, we were told. A con man. We were dupes. We had egg on our faces, while one of Joe's lieutenants should have had cuffs on his wrist and chains on his ankles.

Down with Joe. Take away at least some of his victories. Take away much of his glory. Penn State removes the statue. Brown University, Paterno's alma mater, removes his name from an annual award and coaching position.

We're mad, and we'll stay mad. Mad at Joe for his sense of priorities - covering up for his program and for an evil assistant coach who preyed on kids.

Mad at college sports for the embarrassment they have become. Mad at ourselves for falling under the spell of ESPN and the NCAA and our own naivete at too great an expense.

The philosophy is as old as the quest for undergraduate athletic success. We've heard the axioms: Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. Without football, a university would be only a medieval study hall. You don't get 50,000 fans to watch the physics lab perform.

It's different outside North America. Young men and women attend college for academics. Sports for the most part are limited to club teams - upscale intramurals, you might label them.

The Sorbonne doesn't play Oxford. (Although for the last 183 years, Oxford has rowed against Cambridge.) Decals in the back window of cars don't say "Kentucky No. 1,'' they give the name of the dealer who sold the vehicle.

School is not about trying to win the European championship, it's about trying to get a degree.

But our educational institutions grew as sporting institutions, and so the coaches such as Fielding Yost, Knute Rockne, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Branch McCracken and John Wooden provided an identity.

They were our royalty, Ann Arbor, South Bend, Westwood Village their realms.

"Goodbye, Columbus.'' Hello, big bowl game payoffs.

Joe Paterno was the high priest of Happy Valley. The infidels simmered and waited, as invading armies often do.

Now they symbolically claw at the carcass, which was Penn State football, holding nothing back.

"A man of lesser ego would never have permitted a statue to be built of him,'' wrote Buzz Bissinger.

Said Joe Nocera in the New York Times, "I still think Penn State should stop playing football for a while."

Where was everybody the last few years? Indeed, Nocera has been building a case against the NCAA standards in general, but for the most part the coach was knocked only by writers who had their stories parsed by Paterno's strategy of allowing little access to his team.

Joe Paterno? Built a library. Built winners. Knock him and you're knocking motherhood and apple pie.

Then the disclosures, and instantly - deservedly, perhaps - the disgrace. No middle ground for the Paterno legacy. He was worshipped. Within hours he was despised.

Except maybe by Joe Posnanski, the skilled journalist who contracted to produce, with Paterno's cooperation, a biography of the coach and his achievements.

And failures, meaning most of all the refusal to tell authorities what he had been told about Jerry Sandusky?

"I dedicated myself to write the most honest book I could about Joe Paterno,'' Posnanski said on Twitter. "Everything I have to say about his life is in it."

Yet with the Sandusky iniquities already having been made public when Paterno died of cancer in January at 85, Posnanski, caught in the whirlpool, was ripped for comparing Paterno's "full life'' with "a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester."

The molester, Sandusky, since has been convicted. Paterno's full life has been expanded to include his negligence in a situation when he harbored a criminal and subsequently helped bring down Penn State football after spending years of raising it up.

And we've gone 180 degrees in the blink of an eye. It didn't take much. Then again, it took almost everything.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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