Obama is a “Socialist.” LeBron needs “Rings.” In the Google age, we’re drawn to keywords that can encapsulate any muddled fragment of thought that remotely resembles a well-formulated idea.
Such a hot-button word running rampant across editorial pages of every newspaper and laden within the parameters of any radio talk show nationwide is one that is even amplified with the death of coaching great Joe Paterno: “legacy.”
I have to be honest; I cringe every time I hear the word.
In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, many are wondering what kind of “legacy” Paterno left, and whether it is “tarnished”— another hot-button word.
But after listening to countless pundits speak of what kind of “legacy” JoePa will leave; I’m left feeling like Morgan Freeman’s character Ellis “Red” Redding in the “Shawshank Redemption,” who can’t seem to grasp the connotation of the word “rehabilitated.” It isn’t until the final scenes that Red realizes that the word means what its user wants it to mean.
Such is the case with Paterno and “legacy”— we’ll remember him the way we want to remember him.
It appears we are unable — or perhaps more likely unwilling — to acknowledge the complexity of certain topics, so we try to condense the issue into as compact a word as possible.
At ground zero of the condensation movement sits organizations like ESPN, whose talking heads’ sentences have consisted of three parts this week: a noun, a verb and “legacy.”
The questions I have, however, may not be able to be answered while sitting in cushy chairs arranged in a circle, but by probing former players and those who knew him.
We all remember the cranky old man on the sidelines and in press conferences, but what was he really like behind the scenes? What kind of offense did he run? What does his coaching tree look like?
Unfortunately, these are all questions that will most likely go unanswered, as we instead have to ponder what people will think of him in 2042.
It’s not the first time we’ve gotten stuck on a word like “legacy.”
My sports idol, Brett Favre, had to endure nearly daily pestering about whether his “legacy” was “tarnished” because of his “waffling.”
In his first press conference as a Viking, he addressed the topic.
“First of all, when people start talking about my legacy, it’s mine. It’s what I think of it,” he said.
Favre’s answer perfectly summed up the proper way to treat the topic of “legacy” for any athlete.
Paterno knew he didn’t do all he could in the Sandusky case and said as much. Besides that, his record pretty much speaks for itself.
Maybe someday, news organizations will do some actual reporting and not engage in quasi-philosophical debates about how the masses view someone they’ve never even been close to meeting.
But until then, I’m left doubting the worth of the word because — just as Red views the word “rehabilitation”— to me, “legacy” is just a made-up word.
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