When Joe Paterno is eulogized Thursday at a Penn State memorial service, it will mark the end of one of the sadder stories in sports: A seemingly good man whose heart failed in the final scene.
For every famous sports figure who passes away, an impression remains. Ty Cobb died with his spikes flying high, trying to injure opponents, or so his reputation goes. Lou Gehrig died the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Tiger Woods will be remembered as a world-class golfer and philanderer.
But Paterno's legacy will be more complicated. His 61 years as a caring, genuine and successful football coach — who mentored thousands and inspired millions — will likely be overshadowed by the scandal that overtook his university. He will go down as a man who knew of allegations of child sexual abuse by an assistant coach, yet looked away.
The problem isn't just Paterno's sin of omission, but the fact that Americans usually want heroes/villains to be one-dimensional. That way they can put them on display or throw them in the trash, minus the nuances. It's simpler to just capsulize.
It's easy to dislike Carmelo Anthony, unless you've seen him in a locker room full of reporters saying, "Gentlemen, what can I do for you?" and easier still to judge Kobe Bryant by his smirk.
I once entered a baseball clubhouse during the off-season, where I was introduced to Hank Aaron. He barely made eye contact. I imagined he would be ingratiating, or affable, but he was neither. He wasn't impolite, just disinterested, a baseball executive hoping to spend his day uninterrupted.
At the same time, Pete Rose wasn't the monster I expected when he showed up in Salt Lake a few years ago, pleading his case to baseball. I actually found him likable.
Elgin Baylor, my childhood basketball idol, wouldn't allow an interview when he was G.M. for the Clippers, even though I tried numerous times to line something up. I expected him to soar like one of his hanging jumpers. Instead, he was just a quiet, possibly standoffish executive for a dreadful team.
It's complicated. Before allegations of Brett Favre texting pornographic pictures of himself, he had done little if anything to warrant disgust. He was the fortyish guy who still played with admirable youthfulness. He'll probably be remembered as much for the scandal as the touchdowns.
Public figures usually are a combination of things, not one-dimensional Boy Scouts. I once did a column on Arizona basketball player Eugene Edgerson, who had sidetracked the career of BYU's Bret Jepsen with an intentional elbow. Three years later, I was at the Final Four and described him going retro with an Afro, knee pads, high tops and long socks. He made me smile. It seemed to me he was a good enough guy and great subject.
Long before, he had taken responsibility for the vicious elbow. He even took a year off basketball to student-teach a kindergarten class. Yet after my column appeared, a fellow journalist asked how I could write a complimentary column on such a jerk.
I thought Edgerson was a decent guy who made a bad decision. Then in 2009 he was charged with domestic violence.
Good guy, bad guy, maybe a little of both.
I never much liked Shaquille O'Neal. Whenever I was in a group interview with him, he mumbled and acted bored. I guess I missed the times he playfully referred to himself as the Big Aristotle. But a colleague of mine said he liked O'Neal and noted that Shaq had purchased a new car for one of the Lakers' clubhouse attendants whose vehicle had broken down. What's not to like?
While public figures like Paterno ought to be good role models, fans should remember they're usually not all-or-nothing propositions. They're people with good days and bad, admirable qualities and distasteful ones.
Better to admire them as athletes alone and not expect them to be stars everywhere else.
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