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No Answers, Just Cancer -- Paterno's Death Leaves a Confusing Picture

01/25/2012 12:57 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2012

Joe Paterno leaves behind one of the most incredibly complex legacies in the history of sports.

His tenure at Penn State University was legendary, both for its duration and for its success. Paterno turned Penn State into one of the most recognizable college football powerhouses of all time, and did so while graduating an unbelievable 87 percent of his players.

A darker side to Paterno's legacy will be remembered as well. His failure to do more than he did in the face of sexual abuse allegations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky cannot be forgotten. Whether or not he fulfilled his legal obligations, he was one of many people -- and the most powerful of those people -- who could have gone further to get to the bottom of horrific accusations that transcend football.

Such is the duality of Paterno's legacy. Media and fans paint pictures in broad strokes of black and white, but Paterno's picture is colored in inscrutable shades of grey. Ignoring Paterno's contributions to Penn State would be shortsighted. Athletic programs are the ultimate form of creating brand recognition for universities. A top-notch football or basketball program attracts more publicity (and more donations from rich alumni) than a top-notch physics or performing arts program does. As a result, athletic success does tend to improve a college, which economically boosts the entire community around the college. Nothing can change the impact Paterno had on Penn State through his success as a football coach.

Nothing can change the impact of Paterno's inactions either. Forget about quibbling over whether meeting legal obligations is the same as meeting moral obligations. At some point, Paterno made either a conscious or unconscious decision that he had done enough with graduate assistant Mike McQueary's shocking claim of walking in on Sandusky raping a young boy in Penn State's locker room showers. When the situation is reframed in terms of "how would you feel if it were your child allegedly being raped by Sandusky in Penn State's showers?", even the most diehard Penn State fans would have a hard time saying Paterno did enough.

The human mind will struggle massively to put both sides of Paterno in perspective. He will be remembered by some as JoePa, the warmhearted football coach who was a fixture of "Happy Valley" for decades, and by others as JoeFraud, the supposed exemplar of morals who looked the other way in the light of horrendous allegations and was so caught up in the myth of his own legacy that he led "We Are... Penn State!" chants on his lawn after the accusations came to light.

Seeing only one of Paterno's two sides, or seeing one as much larger or more important than the other, is willful ignorance. Paterno, despite the legendary career and disgraceful downfall, was human like the rest of us. Both the good and the bad side of Paterno are part of who he was. Because the two sides of Paterno's legacy contrast so strongly with each other, they are nearly impossible to put in context of each other.

I lack the moral authority to tell you what to think of Paterno, and I lack the emotional maturity to process the dual sides of Paterno's legacy and tell you what I think about it. All I can add to the conversation is a request for those discussing the Paterno situation to frame it in realistic terms and keep from resorting to hyperbole.

Regardless of your opinions on Paterno, please do intelligent discourse a favor and don't echo the "broken heart" mantra that several media personalities and former Penn State players have been repeating since Paterno's death. Paterno supporters blaming the Board of Trustees' firing or the media's coverage of Paterno's death are just as incorrect as Paterno critics who say he got what he deserved as karma for his complicity in the Sandusky scandal.

A broken heart didn't kill Joe Paterno. Cancer did. Cancer cells don't care how much you loved your job, and they don't care whether or not you did enough to stop an alleged monster from hurting children. Paterno died because malignant cells multiplied in his body at a rate chemotherapy and other treatments simply could not stop. That's all there is to it.

The Sandusky scandal contrasts starkly against what was previously thought to be known about Paterno. The juxtaposition has created a mountain of perplexing questions about what to think of Paterno's life, so it is only natural to look for answers in Paterno's death. In this case, though, answers and closure are nowhere to be found. Sometimes there are deeper meanings to events, but other times there is nothing but a cold and harsh reality.

That's life.