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Debating Paterno: Is His Retirement Enough? What About His Legacy?

Engulfed in a scandal about the sexual abuse of children, 84-year-old Penn State football coach Joe Paterno announced today he was retiring. Authorities say that even though Paterno told the school's athletic director in 2002 that he had heard from a witness that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky might have sexually abused a young boy, neither Paterno nor any other school officials ever alerted police.

Sandusky says he's innocent, but faces 40 charges involving alleged behavior with eight boys. Two university officials have been charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to tell authorities about the possible abuse. They also say they're innocent. Paterno has not been charged with any crime.

The scandal has taken the college football world by surprise and thrown the legacy of the winningest coach in Division I college football history into question. The Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial board, perhaps best describes the tension:

Only time will tell whether this blot on Paterno's stellar record will ever be erased. For decades, he has been Penn State's most visible face, given the heft of Nittany Lions football. He has been both rainmaker and donor to the university whose library carries his name. Like an indefatigable Energizer Bunny, Paterno has endured long after others retired.

But the coach's epitaph might well prove to have been contained in his sad parting announcement Wednesday: "I wish I had done more," he said.

Without a doubt, opinion on the issue is split. We've looked around and here's some of what's being said around the Web:

-- Both Jamele Hill at ESPN and Phil Sheridan at the Philly Inquirer, said that Paterno's retirement is "not good enough."

Hill writes:

If the Paterno era is allowed to end this way, it will be just another example of Penn State University cowardice. ...

But the only interests being served here are Paterno's and Penn State's. If the 84-year-old coach is given the freedom to dictate the terms of his departure, it means that university officials will have shown again that they are unwilling and unprepared to confront their legendary football coach.

Sheridan concludes:

It's over. Just accept that. It is past time to start scrubbing away this stain before it spreads even a little bit more. Spanier, Paterno, Tim Curley – these men have forfeited the right to be part of the solution. They have violated the trust of the university, its students and alumni, and the taxpayers of the commonewealth who support the entire enterprise.

Paterno's announcement that he'll retire is a charade. His contract was set to expire anyway. Was there some chance he was going to get a contract extension? Of course not. It was a given that Paterno was finished when the season ended. That's not good enough anymore.

-- Steward Mandel at Sports Illustrated doesn't pretend to defend Paterno. But he argues Paterno's history is too long and too great to let the "closing chapter" overshadow its entirety. In the future, he argues, the decades of students Paterno mentored and the university he helped put on the map will be a big part of his legacy. Mandel adds:

No question, Paterno should be held accountable for his inaction in the Sandusky saga — as should a whole lot of other people who had a chance to stop this tragedy. It would be an injustice to the alleged victims to ever forget Paterno's failure to prevent future crimes. But it would also be a disservice to the thousands upon thousands of lives he positively impacted if that mistake erases 46 years of good from the history books.

We will remember Paterno both as the coach who we thought served as a moral standard-bearer for 40-plus years and as the coach who bore responsibility for a reprehensible moral breakdown at the end. Those memories are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist.

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