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What should be the first line in our obituaries?

Recently I have been thinking about legacy. What defines us as people? Is it the best thing we do in our lives or is it our worst? It is a mixture of the two? People do very good things and can also do very bad things. If I were to die tomorrow what would people say about me? I don’t have anything particularly bad on my resume but nor do I have anything particularly good. I am at a loss to work out what people would say.

American sports writer Bill Simmons was asked in a recent mailbag he did on Manti Te’o:

Q: You have established the Levels of Losing. This whole Manti Te’o thing has got me thinking of the Levels of Indefensibly Defending Sports Figures. There has to be a certain level to where you can’t defend your favorite stars without coming off as a pathetic, nonsensical fan. If there were five levels in all, Joe Paterno’s supporters would be the highest (Level 5). Mel Gibson’s fans are a 4 but dying to be a 5. Every Notre Dame fan defending Manti right now would probably be a 3 (with the chance to climb). This idea is in its infancy stages, how can you help?
—Joe, Syracuse

His reply:

Come on, you barely need any tweaking! You were right there! Fine, I’ll help. You should have gone with six levels (you missed one).

(snip Levels 1-5)

Level 6: Anyone who wanted the Paterno statue to stay up; anyone who thinks that Paterno and/or Penn State’s administration didn’t have an inkling that something was at the very least a little off with Jerry Sandusky; anyone who rushed out a mostly flattering post-scandal biography about Paterno without waiting for the entire investigation to play out; and anyone who said the words, “Well, this may have complicated Joe’s legacy, but it didn’t change all the great things he did.” Welcome to the highest level of Indefensibly Defending Sports Figures.

Now some of you may not know much about the Penn State Sex scandal but here is the long and short of it. A former coach was seen showering with a minor by a graduate assistant. That guy reported it to the head coach Joe Paterno who then reported it to his superiors. At this point seemingly nothing was done and the former coach was free to abuse boys for many more years. The former coach is now behind bars and two other people are facing criminal charges for failing to report and for lying under oath. At the time of his death Joe Paterno was not under investigation for any crime. However that isn’t important when looking at his legacy as the court of public opinion has decided he knew everything and help cover it up for the good of his school. He might well have done that but he could also just as easily not. We don’t know but knowledge isn’t important when determining legacy.

As Bill Simmons points out anyone who defends him – or any of the good work he’s done – is basically an idiot. One thing he may or may not have done is enough to sully a man who until this all came out was one of the most respected men in America. Not just in sports but flat out one of the most respected men in the country.

Look at President Clinton. His legacy is different because even though he was a bad man involved in a string of extra-marital affairs so it seems he is thought of as a great President because the country boomed under his leadership. Michael Jackson’s legacy is difficult to define but he was the King of Pop who was loved by millions around the world and yet there is still a big question mark surrounding what he actually did in the bedroom to children.

Tony Blair will be remembered mostly for the War in Iraq and not for the good he did in the UK. Under his leadership the economy boomed, people had jobs, waiting times collapsed on the NHS, the minimum wage was introduced but that Iraq issue will be the first line of his legacy whether he likes it or not. Nick Clegg could lead the Lib Dems to a staggering 2015 General Election outright victory and make university education free for all and his legacy might still start with the broken NUS pledge in 2010.

Lance Armstrong won cycling events, got cancer and then came back to win the Tour de France on seven separate occasions until they were vacated.. A quite stunning feat. He has raised over half a billion dollars in the fight against cancer but that will not be the first line of his legacy. That will be that he was a cheat and a bully. OJ Simpson will not be remembered as one of the greatest Running Backs the NCAA and the NFL ever saw but more that he was found not guilty in a criminal court of murder (although found guilty in a civil court). Patrick Moore died last month but his first line was about what a great man he was and how he inspired two generations of scientists and the wonder of space yet he was a homophobic who disliked women at the BBC.

It seems as though legacy has no rhyme or reason. Some people will always be seen primarily by the good they do and some by the bad. It seems to me that the court of public opinion will decide how the media will view anyone. If the court of public opinion in the majority likes a person then they can sweep their pitfalls under the rug but if the bad point is so big that is dramatically shifts the court of public opinion then the media will react and they’ll react faster and louder than the previous person because they need to be the most outraged or they won’t get their point across.

I saw this with Joe Paterno. I read so many pieces and so many outraged voices all going further than the previous person. I even saw some ‘journalists’ saying that all his assets should be striped from his family and they should be made to live on the streets as a punishment. Others said that Penn State should never play football again and I’m sure I even read one or two saying the university should be completely shutdown.

We live in an era where if you don’t scream loud enough then your voice will fade into the background and that is a sad state of affairs. Reasoned and thoughtful debate is something that is going the way of the VHS and if the first line of my legacy started with ‘he was a reasoned and thoughtful person’ then that would be a distinction that I’d be rather proud of.

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One Comment

  1. B Croft B Croft

    Lance Armstong won the Tour de France AFTER cancer. It’s good to get these simple facts right.

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