I already know two things:
1) As a long time Penn State and JoePa fan, I’m thinking with my heart here more than anything.
2) I may get killed a little for these comments.
Joe Paterno passed away just a few moments ago. I checked ESPN.com just before I went into our early service and nothing was posted. By the time I came out, his death had been announced. And it makes me sad. I can’t remember a time when Joe Paterno was not the coach of the Nittany Lions. He was an institution at the institution of higher education from which my father graduated.
If Joe had died last year, they would probably be flying flags at half-staff and having moments of silence at every sporting event this weekend. He was one win shy of becoming the winningest coach in NCAA history – his last win tied the record. And he would have been held up as a model of integrity, old school work ethic, and everything that can be good and right about American sports. Penn State was not a program that skirted the edges or played in the margins. They did it right. In nearly 5 decades at the helm, JoePa had never been involved in scandal or brought shame to PSU.
And then it all crumbled in an instant.
Jerry Sandusky, his chief assistant for many years, the man many thought to be the next head coach there if Paterno had ever retired, was convicted in the court of public opinion of being a pedophile. He has not been convicted yet in court – I have no idea how long that might take. But the evidence seems pretty convincing that he molested and raped young boys, using his position as a trusted football coach to groom them and abuse them.
There can be little doubt that Penn State blew this thing badly. When the coach who saw Sandusky commit the act reported it to Paterno, he passed it up the food chain and then washed his hands. The administration evidently chose to keep quiet about the event, cover it up and focus on damage control. Sandusky retired and was no longer supposed to bring boys onto the Penn State campus. It seems clear that Sandusky was allowed to continue molesting children by the failure of the Penn State administration to act.
In the aftermath, JoePa was fired, administrators lost their jobs (including the president) and several now face charges of obstruction. It is a big mess.
Before I say what I want to say, I must say several things:
1) What happened is disgusting. I’m not sure why actions such as Sandusky’s are not treated as the most heinous of crimes – on a par with murder. Perhaps the most despicable act a human being can commit is to sexually abuse some weaker and less powerful.
2) Joe Paterno blew it, and he probably deserved to get fired. He reported the matter but never followed up. He has admitted that he should have done more.
3) Because of Penn State’s reaction and the fact that they did not report this to authorities, Jerry Sandusky was allowed to continue molesting children for another decade. The administration of Penn State is culpable for every child Sandusky may have hurt during those years. Joe Paterno also bears responsibility here.
Now, the other side. I’m going to say this and duck.
1) I don’t think that this failure at the end of Joe Paterno’s life should destroy his legacy as an honorable coach. He did it right for a lot of years. He made a mistake – a big one. But that mistake should not necessarily negate 46 years of exemplary service.
2) I am glad the culture is changing in America concerning reporting this kind of thing, but what younger folks need to understand is that the culture of reporting did not exist in earlier generations. A friend of mine left his children with one of the leaders of his church back in the 70s, and the leader and his son molested the 3 and 5 year old girls the entire weekend. When my friend reported this to the police, the church was furious – at him. He had shamed the church by going public. I am thankful that I have never had to face the question of what to do if a child was molested at one of the churches I served. But I think the church’s response today would be very different than it would have been in the 70s or 80s. We are currently rewriting our bylaws and we have included a statement in them that unlawful acts will be reported to the proper authorities. I’ve served four churches and I’ve served under several different sets of bylaws, but this is the first one of those that spelled this out.
Joe Paterno is a product of that earlier generation when you swept things like this under the rug. You did not expose your friends to public disgrace nor did you harm your institution by going public. That tendency to hide abuse was wrong, but it was prevalent.
I am not saying that JoePa should be excused for his actions, but perhaps his actions should be put in perspective. By and large, that was the way it was done back in the day. Was it right? No. Did children suffer because of it? Undoubtedly. Is it good that the culture is changing? Absolutely. But is it possible that we could grant just a little grace to those who, having been raised in the culture of secrecy and suppression, are now a little confused at the rules of a new culture that demands reporting and exposing such crimes?
I talked to an elderly man who is a committed Christian man a while back; one who sometimes makes racially insensitive jokes and who has, on occasion, used a certain word that starts with the letter n. I will tell you, this man is not a racist. In fact, he was an advocate for racial reconciliation in churches long before it became trendy. But he still uses that word (rarely) in a joking manner and makes jokes that he thinks are funny. He knows he is not a racist and he doesn’t see why a joke such as this is anything but funny. I’ve tried to convince him that in this new world in which we live, you just simply cannot use that word and you cannot make those jokes. He doesn’t understand the new world.
I’m not trying to excuse Joe Paterno. And I certainly don’t want to return to the world of non-reporting of such atrocities. But I would ask you to understand that this was the mindset prior to the last fifteen or twenty years. Hide. Protect. Cover-up. It was wrong and the culture is changing. But change doesn’t happen overnight, and when a good man like Joe Paterno does something rotten like allowing a monster like Sandusky to continue operating, we can call it evil. But we must also remember that the modern standard may have always been the right thing, but it was not the common practice.
Ultimately, here is what I think. Joe Paterno should be honored for that which he did well – coach and lead young men with honor. He should have been called on the carpet for the huge mistake he made – not following up on reports of molestation going on under his watch by one of his coaches. But the mistake he made at the end of his life should be put in perspective and not allowed to tarnish the man who was one of the great men of coaching for 46 years.
Okay, time to start heating up the roast Dave for lunch.