Joe Paterno. Extraordinary coach—remarkable man—enduring, committed to the right—now we add the flaw that reminds us he is as human as you and I.
What do we make of the events of the past month in which Paterno’s legacy was tarnished by the revelations of his former assistant, Sandusky, showering with many, many young boys while serving as their mentor and friend? What do we make of the likelihood that such “showering” was a cover or stimulus for pedophilia? What do we make of Paterno’s failure to pursue the discovery of this activity after Sandusky left Penn State, but while still a coach emeritus? What do we make of Sandusky’s claims that there was no sexual activity, only horsing around?
My sister wrote in her blog using the words from David’s lament at the death of Saul and Jonathon, “How are the mighty fallen!” She expressed well both the real goodness, indeed greatness of Paterno’s legacy, and the real and destructive failure of the university—including Paterno—to deal with the knowledge they had.
I don’t know what more the university should have done. Report the matter to the police? It seems that they did (although I find it difficult to know who really did what), but without pursuing the matter as vigorously as they should have. Reports were made up the chain of authority within the university. I hear people say, “Paterno was king, therefore he carries the greatest responsibility.” That makes little sense to me: Paterno, like any of us in the academic world, worked within a chain of authority, which he honoured as he should have. Certainly that chain failed.
I do know that we can hardly grasp how destructive Sandusky’s activity was. I think of a friend who tried to respond to similar activity within the church, and found the aftermath so destructive that he eventually took his own life. Even if the actions had not been with young boys, what was done with the victims without their consent was and is terribly destructive.
I still do not know how culpable Sandusky was. We’re waiting for the victims to tell their story, so that we can evaluate Sandusky’s claims that he was “horsing around”, but did not engage in sexual actions with the boys. On the face of it the claim seems unlikely, but we must listen to the boys before we make up our minds. I still do not know if Paterno should have been fired. He was at least naïve in his response, underestimating the seriousness of Sandusky’s actions.
I notice several other facts about our society in the aftermath.
There was a remarkable rush to judgment, with the sports media especially deciding they knew all the facts from the start.
We readily judge past actions based on present knowledge. It’s ironic that Paterno the football coach should be condemned by Monday morning quarterbacks. He himself agrees now, with what he knows now, that he should have done more. As a society we are convinced that we would have done more than he did—so good is our view after the event.
We continue to underestimate the destructive potential of wrong actions, such as Sandusky’s actions in showering with the boys. The showers may have begun innocently; they can hardly have continued so. (I am as sceptical as anyone, although I want to wait for a fuller version of the story.)
I think of one good result of Paterno’s final failure. I listened to the first game after he was fired, on Lion radio on the internet. Every commercial break included information about child abuse and efforts to persuade us to take abuse more seriously and bring it to an end. When Penn State was driving for what would have been the winning score (except that the drive failed), the students took up their iconic chant: “We are! Penn State!” It was a spine-chilling moment, and then there was a timeout—and a radio break. The chant was replaced with the reminder to end sexual abuse of children. The emotion of the game was framed in proper perspective.
In time perhaps we can recover a real sense of Paterno’s enduring legacy—a great man and great coach, who is as human as you and I, flawed and able to make serious mistakes in assessing another person’s actions. In time perhaps we can rediscover college football as a wonderful pastime. Framed within the far more serious and enduring task of relating to each other and taking care of each other the way that God intended us to. Ending abuse—abuse of children, abuse of any other person—is greater than any Penn State game. I think Paterno would agree and would be glad to see steps towards that goal as the best part of his own life. I hope he would agree.