“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
The line is from Christopher Nolan’s stylish 2008 film The Dark Knight. The accuracy of the statement was evidenced this week in the sporting world.
Joe Frazier died on Monday. The former world heavyweight champion was the embodiment of why boxing, despite its inherent brutality, was once considered a “gentleman’s sport.”
Frazier was not flashy. He was a hard-working, persistent pugilist, who attacked relentlessly with hooks to the head and body, tearing down defenses until opponents inevitably submitted. He is considered one of the greatest heavyweight champions despite successfully defending his title only four times.
In a sense, Frazier was on the wrong side of history. His name will forever be linked to that of Muhammad Ali because his career was largely defined by his three bouts with Ali, considered by boxing experts among the greatest fights ever staged. Frazier defeated Ali in the first of those bouts on March 8, 1971, a 15-round battle that saw Ali dropped to the canvas for the first time, suffering the first defeat of his professional career. Ali took their next two fights, including the brutal 1975 spectacle referred to as the “Thrilla in Manila” that saw Frazier, blinded by Ali’s repeated jabs, prevented by his corner from emerging for a fifteenth and final round.
The 1971 Frazier-Ali bout was deemed “The Fight of the Century,” one of the most anticipated boxing events ever. Ali, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, was criminally charged and convicted in 1967 for refusing induction into the U.S. armed forces (his conviction was eventually reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 28, 1971). Ali’s boxing license was suspended and he did not fight for more than three years. When Ali’s license was restored in late 1970, the stage was set for his 1971 bout with Frazier, a battle of undefeated champions in the prime of their careers.
Frazier lacked Ali’s flash and charisma. While Ali loudly proclaimed himself “the greatest of all time,” Frazier went quietly about his business of training and preparing for his next fight. He never attained the world-wide renown and adulation of Ali – yet many believe that Ali would not be Ali without Frazier.
Frazier retired from boxing in 1981 at the age of 37. His death was mourned by many who, like myself, grew up in the 1970’s and remember him as a quiet, proud man whose name and career were synonymous with professionalism. He is remembered fondly, particularly in his native Philadelphia, where he is considered a hero and community icon.
Contrast Frazier with Joe Paterno, iconic coach of the Penn State University football team.
For over six decades (four of them as head coach), Paterno had been the king of college football, overseeing one of the most successful programs in the country. Paterno was deemed an educator who valued sportsmanship and integrity more than his teams’ abundant success on the gridiron. At the age of 84, he was a beloved and revered figure in the sport, and the universal belief was that he would continue coaching until he decided it was time to walk away. When that time came, all assumed that he would depart the game with his head held high. His reputation and legacy were beyond reproach.
All that changed in the span of days.
Late last week, a grand jury indicted Paterno’s long-time friend and defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, charging him with the repeated and systematic sexual abuse of young boys on university grounds over several years. Further, two university officials, including the school’s athletic director, were also indicted based on the grand jury’s finding that they were aware of, yet ignored, Sandusky’s actions.
Paterno testified during the grand jury proceedings that he was made aware by a graduate assistant of a 2002 incident involving Sandusky and a 10-year old boy in the showers of the team’s football complex. The graduate assistant had witnessed the criminal act and notified Paterno, apparently believing that Paterno would contact the proper authorities. Paterno immediately brought the incident to the attention of the university’s athletic director, following school protocol that required notification of Paterno’s superiors.
However, neither Paterno nor anyone else at Penn State ever notified university police, which allowed Sandusky to continue his alleged pattern of abuse unabated for several additional years.
Paterno is not being targeted in the criminal investigation. Local authorities have stated that, by notifying his athletic director, he complied with his legal obligation under the circumstances.
Whether Paterno complied with his moral obligation, given the nature and severity of the act by Sandusky reported to him, has been openly debated for the past week. When the grand jury findings became public, pressure mounted on Paterno and the university’s president to resign or be stripped of their positions.
Earlier today, Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of this season, indicating that the effects of the child sex abuse scandal have been “overwhelming.” This evening, the university's Board of Trustees terminated Paterno's tenure as head coach, effective immediately.
And so ends the career of the man once deemed to embody all that was good about college football. He leaves no longer a hero, his legacy tainted by a scandal unlike any ever witnessed by the sport.
While Paterno is not a “villain” in the traditional sense, his public image has been forever altered. It is sad to think that he will be remembered not for the positives he brought to the sport over a span of 62 years, but for the sordid scandal that led to his departure.
Yet when one thinks of the abuse allegedly wrought upon young victims by Sandusky, and the realization that one call by Paterno to campus police might have prevented several of the assaults, it is difficult to remember Paterno in any other light.