Imani Jackson is an award winning journalist and mass communication graduate of Grambling State University. Currently a freelance writer, she served as editor-in-chief of The Gramblinite newspaper for two and a half years. Follow her @faithspeaks on Twitter.
Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno died of lung cancer Sunday, leaving behind a well-documented legacy of legendary wins, philanthropy, leadership of young men, and an unfortunate lesson about inaction.
When Paterno topped former Grambling State University head football coach Eddie Robinson’s record for Division I wins with 409 victories, some Grambling fans called for the NCAA to strike Paterno’s record from the books.
A Facebook group, “I Support Coach Eddie G. Robinson and believe his record should stand” was created immediately after news spread of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s 40 charges of sexually abusing numerous boys. The group boasts nearly 1,000 members.
Paterno was not the alleged aggressor, but some fans questioned his integrity in his decision to not alert authorities after being informed by an eyewitness of Sandusky’s alleged sexual impropriety.
In death, both Paterno and Robinson remain among sports’ most hallowed examples of character and leadership by example. But many in the HBCU community believe that if faced with a similar situation, Robinson would have responded differently. While no one will ever know what Coach Rob’s reaction would have been, neither Eddie Robinson’s son nor grandson, advocate stripping Paterno of his record or tarnishing his name.
“I always thought Coach Paterno was a first class guy and a first class coach,” Eddie Robinson Jr. told Kendrick Marshall of FansNTheStands. “I don’t have any comments about (the allegations),” Robinson Jr. said. “But I do pray for the victims and their families. I pray for Paterno’s family, too.”
Paterno and Robinson remain affirmed in the sports world for coaching young men who were exemplary on the field, many who played professionally, and others who left their universities with the degrees that they came to college to obtain. Despite controversy, and perhaps because of the universality of fallibility, many Penn State fans remain loyal, just like Grambling fans.
It is impossible to quantify the impact of many men who actualized their dreams as a result of gridiron greatness under both coaches.
However, while NFL dreams came to fruition for some, the living nightmares of underage victims is a teachable moment for sports teams who face controversies and too often employ unofficial “no snitch” policies. It is unreasonable to expect that all nuanced moments of team bonding and interaction be made public, but when children are made vulnerable and face irreparable harm, adults are universally obligated to protect them.
Victimized children pitted against well-branded powerhouse institutions, their athletic traditions and their money shows that they can face further neglect and trauma in the court of public opinion. It is not a matter of demonizing a university or its community, but one of ensuring that a vile chapter in its history is not repeated.
A history that, between the two lives well lived by Paterno and Robinson in service to their respective institutions, holds only one of those lives in the potential way of lasting scrutiny and judgment.
Coaches are often paid more than the presidents and chancellors for whom they work. They are placed on pedestals because they fulfill multiple roles in the lives of players and communities. For one group, they are advisors, parental figures and support systems. For another, they are fundraisers, ambassadors and the living embodiment of a college town’s spirit.
Joe Paterno’s wins on and off the field will always be held dear by those who love and respect him. But some will always wonder if he lost his voice at the most inopportune time.