But it was a huge mistake. A life-defining mistake. By his own words, that mistake will haunt Paterno forever. It should. If the charges against Sandusky are true, the inaction of Paterno, current Penn State assistant Mike McQueary, former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, former Penn State vice president Gary Schultz and now-former Penn State president Graham Spanier -- as well as anyone else who knew about what McQueary saw in the shower in the football complex in 2002 -- allowed a pedophile to continue preying on children.
Paterno announced Wednesday that he will retire at the end of the season. Penn State's Board of Trustees wanted to send the message that the school's leaders wouldn't tolerate such shameful inaction, so they fired Paterno and president Spanier Wednesday night.
So how do we square this mess with all the good Paterno has done? Can a mistake wipe away a lifetime of admirable service?
The easiest way to determine how an event will affect someone's legacy is the New York Times obituary test. Ask yourself what would appear in the first sentence of the story inside the commas between the person's name and the when and where of his or her demise. For Joseph Vincent Paterno, the sentence certainly will include a victory total somewhere between 409 and 414. It also will include a reference to Paterno's role in the Sandusky scandal.
This is not Woody Hayes slugging a Clemson player in the heat of the moment. This is not Kelvin Sampson making too many phone calls. This is not Jim Tressel lying to the NCAA about playing an ineligible quarterback.
This is an icon, the most powerful man in his community, failing to follow up on a report of an unspeakable act beyond informing the equally unconcerned people above him on the organizational chart. That is not speculation. (Speculation would be wondering what Paterno knew about a 1998 investigation into Sandusky.) That is what an under-oath Paterno told a grand jury. Children may have been molested because of that inaction. Those people -- now young adults -- don't get a do-over because Paterno went out on his lawn and asked everyone to say a prayer for them. They probably appreciate his statement Wednesday: "This is a tragedy," Paterno said in the statement. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." Guess what they would appreciate more: To have lived lives in which they were never molested.
(We'll pause here with a message for that vocal minority still blindly supporting Paterno while foisting blame for inaction on Curley, Schultz and Spanier. Legally speaking, Paterno did just enough. Morally speaking, he's in the same boat as they are. So think very hard about what you're actually supporting when you pledge your undying allegiance to Paterno.)
Still, this major lapse in judgment does not and should not erase all the good Paterno has done in his life. That list is long, but here are a few of the highlights:
• In an era when many coaches didn't care if players graduated as long as the team won, Paterno's players graduated at rates far above the averages for other FBS football programs and the general student population. For example, when the NCAA released its graduation rates report in 2009 for athletes who entered college during the 2002-03 school year, Penn State led all Top 25 teams with an astonishing 89 percent graduation rate. Because of the way Paterno ran his program, hundreds if not thousands of young men earned college degrees they might not otherwise have earned or even sought. Many of those players have children and grandchildren now, so Paterno's influence has made thousands of lives better.
• In 1993, Paterno and his wife, Sue, started a fundraising drive that raised $13.75 million to build a new library on Penn State's campus. The Paternos themselves have donated more than $4 million to academic programs at the school. Thousands of students at Penn State benefit every day from Paterno's generosity.
• In 2009, Paterno and his wife donated $1 million to help expand Mount Nittany Medical Center. Lives may have been saved thanks to Paterno's generosity.
A scant few of us will have anywhere near the positive effect on our communities that Paterno has had on his. All the plaudits thrown his way prior to Saturday were completely deserved.
Unfortunately, all the criticism thrown Paterno's way since Saturday is also completely deserved. Paterno told a grand jury he received a report in 2002 of sexual activity between a grown man and a 10-year-old in a shower at his football complex. He told Curley and Schultz, and then nothing happened. According to Pennsylvania's attorney general, none of them followed up or even bothered to attempt to identify the boy. They're all at fault for their failure to act, but only one of them was considered an unimpeachable paragon of virtue. Meanwhile, other victims have come forward claiming abuse in the time between the shower incident and the start of the current investigation.
Those people didn't have to be victims.
Joe Paterno's legacy will include wins, a commitment to education, astounding generosity and the excellent leadership of thousands of young men. Unfortunately, it also will include those victims. They are forever intertwined.
"I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University," Paterno said in his statement Wednesday.
Those victims will spend the rest of their lives trying to forget what could have been prevented.