Joe Paterno: A Legacy to Learn From

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. –Edmund Burke


Last night we learned of the death of a truly great man. What can you say about a man who was married for half a century (to the same woman!) and worked at the same job, training men for football and, more importantly, for life (at a graduation rate of nearly 90%) since my dad was in kindergarten? We call such a man faithful. We call such a man successful (even before we learn that he has won more college football bowl games than any other coach). We call such a man grandfatherly, respectable and somebody to model our lives after. In the past few months, however, we have learned one other moniker- coward.


Who could be accused of cowardice if the term is not applied to a man who turned a blind eye to his own staff member committing sexually abusive acts under his watch- and at work, to boot? No, if the term carries any weight, we must use it in connection to even the greatest and most well respected of our culture. In fact, it may be true that these leaders of men and society are held to a much higher standard when it comes to not only their own morality but also how they will act in a moment of moral crisis.


If you had been unfamiliar with the late Coach Joe Paterno, whose bespectacled face has become more of a symbol of Penn State football than its fearsome Nittany Lion, there is now no doubt you have heard his name come up in the past few months. His long-time assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, is currently accused of luring and sexually assaulting dozens and dozens of young men over the years- young men Sandusky had met in the arms of his own charity. The charges are enough to make our consciences cry out for justice. But the crimes were known long before this past November, when the first charges were levied.


Ten years ago, a graduate assistant took a turn into the locker room showers at Penn State’s athletic facilities and witnessed an unmistakable case of abuse being committed by Sandusky. The next morning he visited Coach Paterno, who contacted his boss- the next morning- in regards to the crime. And that was it. For ten years, justice was not only denied- it was mocked. Sandusky had ten more years of freedom and threat to the common good while time marched on, promising to heal all wounds. Time, as we have found out one more time, was not up to the challenge. for more on Coach Paterno & Mike McQueary’s response to injustice, I recommend my brother Jay’s blog post.


The story of the blind eye is reminiscent of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words penned in the Birmingham Jail on 16 April 1963. As he sat in a cockroach-infested cell, he wrote a prophetic letter to his white colleagues, expressing his disappointment in their willingness to stand by and watch an entire race of people be mistreated, abused and dehumanized. Dr. King wrote about his initial hopes that, once the ball started rolling on the civil rights movement in the first sit-ins in Montgomery, Alabama, the leadership of the white church would inevitably come to his aid. Dr. King was, after all, the fourth in the line of pastors of the word of God. He not only had inherited a place in the conversation, he had established himself as man of peace, truth and justice. He had every right to expect that men who claimed to lead others in the ways of Christ would jump to his aid, join the fight, integrate their congregations and lead the way into partnership in the gospel. He was mistaken.


And it turned out that his greatest opponents were moderate white church leaders who could see the injustices of society but refused to put their careers, their families, their reputations and their word on the line for their black brothers. Dr. King wrote:


I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


Burke was right after all. Evil triumphs when we turn a blind eye to the injustices right under our noses. I include myself in this. I confess I am more concerned with off-season baseball acquisitions than I am with the rampant homeless issue in Seattle- somewhere around 8,000 are without food or shelter in my adopted hometown. In King County, there are somewhere between 500 and 800 youth sex-workers right now. And have we still ironed-out racial inequality? In Birmingham, are there not separate areas for black and white, just as there are in Seattle? We may have been kind enough to take down the sign “Whites Only”, but how much interaction do we have as friends, black and white? And our immigration questions highlight once again that we are not out of the woods- not if we are willing to subject a section of contributing workers to fear of being pulled over for the color of their skin in places like Arizona and Alabama.


I don’t have all the answers- I don’t think I have many. But I know one thing. I do not want to be a coward. Not at the expense of others who are fashioned in the image of the God I claim to love. I want to love the God who I cannot see, as the Apostle John wrote, by loving my brothers and sisters who I see every day. I want my eyes open and my hands working for justice.


Before we go demonizing Coach Paterno, let us look circumspectly, wisely and seriously at our own lives. And before we go excusing his sin, let us first investigate our own hearts to see whether we love the sinner or the sin. Paterno was not Jesus- he never claimed to be- and neither are you or me. He was a flawed man, filled with weakness. We can learn from him, model our lives of long-obedience in the same direction from him, but we must learn from his mistakes.


Are you more interested in keeping the peace of injustice or in striving for the peace of your own conscience and the good of your brothers and sisters?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: