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Porto: Lessons From A Public Life

02/03/12 5:55PM By Brian Porto
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(Host) Commentator and Vermont Law School professor has been thinking about the life of legendary football coach Joe Paterno and thinks several important lessons can be learned from Paterno's career.

(Porto) Joe Paterno used to joke that he continued coaching football long past the customary retirement age because "only one major event follows retirement," and he wasn't ready for that yet. That comment proved prophetic because Paterno died less than three months after Penn State's trustees forced him into retirement in the wake of a child-sex-abuse scandal featuring his long-time assistant, Jerry Sandusky. Paterno's mistake in that sordid caper was a failure to report to the police a graduate assistant's claim to having witnessed Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy. Coach Paterno relayed the story to his superiors, but neither consulted the police directly nor asked his superiors whether they had done so.

Joe Paterno read literary classics, so he undoubtedly understood the tragedy of Sandusky's and his own fall from grace. After Sandusky's arrest, Paterno wrote of the episode, "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. I wish I had done more."

One struggles for objectivity in assessing Joe Paterno's behavior in the Sandusky affair because Paterno was an iconic figure in college sports. His status resulted partly from winning 409 regular-season games and 24 bowl games during 46 seasons, both of which are records, coaching five unbeaten, untied teams, and winning two national championships.

But Paterno became an icon for his educational philanthropy as much as for his coaching success; his fundraising prowess is responsible for a library, endowed faculty positions, scholarships, and a Catholic Center at Penn State, along with a wing of the hospital where he died. And many former Penn State football players owe their success after college, at least in part, to their old coach. Says one of those players, Bill Lenkaitis, now a Massachusetts dentist, "Look how many [of Paterno's former players] go to medical school or law school. Look how many become heads of corporations."

Perhaps the best way, though, for Vermonters and everyone else to honor Joe Paterno's contributions to education is to learn the lessons of his fall from grace. First, be able to recognize what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously called "the fierce urgency of now." Some problems are so severe, some conditions so intolerable, that they must be thwarted forcefully and immediately. Second, power begets responsibility; the greater one's moral authority, the more boldly and courageously one must act in a crisis. Finally, know when to hand the reins of power to younger colleagues more familiar with present-day challenges. If we learn these valuable lessons, Joe Paterno will be an educator in death, as he was in life.
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