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Original Issue

It's Complicated

JoePa got his wins back, and his infamous statue may follow. But legacies aren't so easily restored—or defined

LAST FRIDAY WAS a good day for Joe Paterno, at least as good a day as a man who lost his job, his reputation and his life during a three-month span three years ago can have. He now lies in a small cemetery in State College, Pa., just a few miles from where he once reigned as the apparent model of what a college football coach should be. The NCAA, in what looks to be the last step backward from sweeping sanctions levied against Penn State in the wake of the 2011 Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, restored 111 victories that it had stripped from Paterno, because, ostensibly, it believed Paterno could have done more to stop Sandusky's behavior.

The return of those victories, as part of the settlement in a lawsuit between the NCAA and the State of Pennsylvania, pushes Paterno's career win total back to 409, the number that Penn State students chanted in celebration last September when the NCAA lifted scholarship and bowl-game sanctions from the football program. No other FBS coach has won more games; Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech is the winningest active coach, with 273 wins, and he's 68 years old. Nick Saban, 63, has 177. Barring future intervention, Paterno's 409 is as safe as Cy Young's 511.

Now comes the instantaneous recalculation of Paterno's legacy. Because Lord knows, in 2015, as soon as any sports figure wins or loses a championship, is incarcerated or set free, tests positive or comes up clean, retires or continues playing, lives on or dies, the social-media complex demands a reckoning that can be stated in a handful of words, or certainly no more than 140 characters. It is the ultimate in reductive stupidity. In reality, almost anyone's life or career is impossibly complex.

When Peyton Manning's Broncos were eliminated from the NFL playoffs by the Colts 24--13 on Jan. 11, there was a rush to speculate on whether Manning would retire and, fast on the heels of that, a scramble to encapsulate his 21-year college and professional career into a single sentence. Would he be remembered for elevating the mental nature of quarterback play or for losing too many postseason games? For his record-setting years in Indianapolis or for his noodle-armed final chapter in Denver? For losing two Super Bowls or for playing in three?

Each year the legacies of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire are tested during the Baseball Hall of Fame election, an unsightly morality play in which voters judge which players took what pharmaceuticals when, for how long and to what effect—even though the hard evidence implicates only a small number of players. Hence, Bonds is thought of as a big-headed steroid beast from San Francisco and not the graceful all-around marvel from Pittsburgh. Pete Rose has been distilled to the essence of (and fallout from) his one failing. Tiger Woods: Gimpy serial philanderer, or most dominant player in golf history? Mike Tyson: Most devastating combination of speed, power and youthful will ever seen in the ring, or that guy who got starched by Buster Douglas and chomped off Evander Holyfield's ear? John Calipari: The worst that college sports can offer, or the best? The answer, of course, is all of the above.

Paterno might present the most vexing case of all. His football program was never as ideal as it was often portrayed in its 1980s prime. But it was better than most, hewing closer to whatever remains of the student-athlete ideal. In many ways he tried to do things right. Yet it's impossible to absolve Paterno from blame in the Sandusky scandal, and impossible to forget his own words during that explosive autumn: "This is a tragedy," Paterno said on Nov. 9, 2011. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." At least twice he acknowledged that he had been made aware of Sandusky's engaging in sexual behavior with young boys. Paterno's motivation in doing so little can never be known, although many surmise that he was protecting his power and his legacy. That word again.

Now comes the restoration of 111 wins, which never should have been taken away. Games were played, score was kept. Stripping the victories was a punitive act with no connection to Sandusky's crime. But the wins don't exonerate Paterno. They add a thin layer atop an already complex legacy, comprised of the very good and the very bad. Describing it will take at least two tweets.

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