Paterno’s legacy (not his eternity)

I believe in a God whose love is more powerful than the worst of human nature, so I stay out of the guessing game as to who is going to be rewarded in heaven and who is going to face eternal damnation.  I don’t have the theological arrogance to try and guess at that sort of thing.

Joe Paterno died yesterday, and the commentaries, columns, blogs, status updates, and tweets started to pour out.  Some of it has been vitriolic.  Some of it has been too flowery to stomach.  Joe Paterno was a man.  He was a sinner like all of us.  He had some great victories, and some terrible failures.  I would not want to be judged by my worst moments, but I’m not judging him as a man.  I do not venture into that realm.  I am commenting on his legacy – the way in which he is remembered.  His legacy and his eternity are two very different things.

Here are few things I have to start with:

  • God’s grace is offered to all.  I believe in a God of forgiveness, and I do not claim to know the will of God.  I know absolutely nothing about Joe Paterno’s relationship with God – or Jerry Sandusky’s or Mike Mcqueary’s or any of the Penn State board members or any of the former football players that have come to Paterno’s defense.
  • God’s healing is possible for all.  I believe in a God of healing, and I pray that there is healing for all those that are involved.  I pray for the victims, for Sandusky, and for all that have been hurt.  I know that there are a lot of broken hearts, and I hurt for all of them.  I imagine that Joe Paterno has gone through a lot of turmoil these past few weeks, and I take no pleasure in that.  I pray that he may indeed rest in peace, because I believe in the peace of Jesus Christ that surpasses all understanding.
  • Joe Paterno did not molest, rape or harm any child.  Jerry Sandusky is accused of doing those things.  He will get his day in court and face his accusers.  I’ve read some of the testimony, and it looks pretty convincing.  There is little doubt the prime “bad guy” in all of this is Sandusky.
  • We can take a lot of lessons from this tragedy, and one is this: you never know.  Paterno trusted Sandusky.  That trust was obviously mispaced.  I do not blame him for trusting the wrong person.  Any of us can do that.  I blame him for the inaction after he was told the truth.  And to that end, there seems to be plenty of blame to go around.  As I read the timeline of this story, I just wish that one person – ONE – had the courage to address the problems that began to surface in 1994.
  • Another lesson is this: maybe we should stop building up coaches – or anyone for that matter – with so much adoration.  This is something I wrote about in a post called Congratulations Coach.
  • My argument here is about Joe Paterno’s legacy.  Not his eternal salvation, not Sandusky’s innocence, not the the board, or McQueary, or anyone else.  I read the headline of a column that read “Paterno’s legacy outweighs the scandal.”  I disagree, and here’s why:

Joe Paterno built a strong legacy, and it was on the strength of that legacy that Sandusky preyed (I’m going to allow you to insert the word “allegedly” here because it will get tiresome to type it every time.) on children.  Paterno’s legacy gave Sandusky legitimacy.  It gave him access.

Joe Paterno did a lot of amazing things.  I’m sure that I don’t have a full understanding of all of the positive that he did, but that doesn’t matter.  All of the positives, achievements, and good-will that he created gave him credibility and the moral high-ground in almost every matter.  Most people consider him to be the most powerful man at the university – perhaps the most powerful man in the state.  And it was power that he earned.  It was a power that was based on the values he preached.

Joe Paterno wanted to create a football program that was about more than winning.  His “grand experiment” was about melding football, academics and character.  He wanted to mold boys into men and develop leaders.  He preached about things like respect, honor, accountability, and faith.  He wanted to create something that was good, almost holy.  On the surface, that is exactly what he did.  He created a program that was treated as if it was holy – untouchable.  He had the moral high ground.  This article in 2008 talked about how the program seemed bigger than the institution.  And Joe Paterno WAS the program.

Joe Paterno had the moral authority to stop Jerry Sandusky when he was informed about it.  Instead, he abdicated that authority when he was relatively silent when faced with the biggest challenge of his life.  All of his achievements do little more than make his inaction more inexcusable.  Did Jerry Sandusky fail? obviously.  Did Mike McQueary fail? Certainly.  Should he have gone to the police? Of course.  But he was also deeply enmeshed in a culture of cover-up, and he went as high as he could possibly go – to Joe Paterno.  Did the Athletic Direct, President and the Board fail?  Yes.  They were a part of the institutional mess that lacked the courage to do anything detrimental to the football program.  It seems like even the current governor of Pennsylvania failed.  Why? Because no one wanted to cross Joe Pa.

It was only Joe Paterno that could have stopped Jerry Sandusky.  And he failed to do so.  If we believe that Paterno was told about Sandusky in 2002, then there are many questions to ask.  Why was he still hosting football camps on other Penn State campuses?  Why  was Paterno still involved with Sandusky’s Second Mile Foundation?  Jerry Sandusky used the legacy of Joe Paterno to prey on children.  He gained access, trust, and funds because of his relationship with Joe Paterno, and Paterno let it happen.

I do not believe that I am rushing to tarnish his legacy unfairly.  I am judging it only by his own standard.  He once said, “Losing a game is heartbreaking. Losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy.”  It seems to me that Joe Paterno lost his sense of excellence.  That is (by far) not the greatest tragedy of this story, but it is nonetheless the tragedy of Joe Paterno’s legacy.

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Sports

12 responses to “Paterno’s legacy (not his eternity)

  1. joan mccoy

    as usual you hit the nail on the head… this by far the best article I have read on this whole mess

  2. Andrew Raymond

    FP, I must beg most respectfully to disagree. Mr. Paterno ever sought such power, and as such, I am sure he would have been reluctant to wield it. I cannot accept that he was the ONLY person who could have stopped Sandusky. That is simply an exaggeration (and, in my opinion, an excessive one.)

    Even if we assume the worst, and tie him with being an enabler back to 2002, then that is nine years of bad acts (and certainly there were other acts in the balance to weigh against that.) That is a pittance of time by relationship to his career building PSU’s football program. Can those nine years wipe out all of that? Only if we are completely without gratitude, and insist upon taking the short minded view. Did he fail? Certainly. But I cannot accept that that failure should wipe out the many MANY years of positives which preceded it.

  3. While I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, I also can’t deny the humanity attributed to Paterno in this article:

    I especially like the last line of the piece: “If we’re so able to vividly remember the worst a man did, can’t we also remember the best?”

  4. meredith

    Well said, Pastor!

  5. Mary Lynne

    I am guessing that to the children that were harmed and their parents, nine years of allowing a predator to roam free did wipe out the other good he did. He may not have been the only one (although all the idolization that I read during the scandal certainly made it seem that way) but he WAS a person that could have stopped it. He failed the children most of all but also the university and his friend Sandusky by acquiescing to the evil he was doing to save his football program. There are lots of people who did the wrong thing in this situation, and Paterno was the biggest of them.

  6. Joey

    In this case, I must agree with Andrew. This one ginourmous mistake does not wash the other 40+ years of good work done by Joe Paterno. Did he deserve to be fired? Yes. Does this mar and stain his legacy? Absolutely. It should. But is Joe Paterno’s only and lasting legacy this tradgedy? I don’t believe so. I honestly believe that as time passes and the immediacy of this scandal passes, Joe paterno will be remembered as a god man and a great football coach who made a tragic and horrible mistake. The mistake will always be a part of who he was, but so will all the other good he did.

    (Incidentally, I think the biggest mistake Joe Paterno made was to stay too long. I believe him when he said he didn’t know how to handle the alegations. That is his fault; he should have. But he was from a different era- an era that thankfully has pased.)

  7. Dona Mayes

    Thank you, FP. I think that you have taken a good look at both sides and I believe that this quote from C.S. Lewis helps to give the situation perspective. It is from the C.S Lewis Study Bible, NRSV for reflection regarding Joshua 7:1-26.
    If, then, you are ever tempted to think that we modern Western Europeans cannot really be so very bad because we are, comparatively speaking, humane-if, in other words, you think God might be content with us on that ground-ask yourself whether you think God ought to have been content with the cruelty of cruel ages because they excelled in courage or chastity. You will see at once that this is an impossibility. From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God.
    -from “The Problem of Pain”

  8. Mary

    The pain of the children and their parents will not pass so easily with time. If this man were not a “revered” football coach I think the responses would be different.

  9. Bobbie

    I’m reading a book called Willful Blindness. When we wonder how anyone could ignore (insert horrible issue here) this book begins to sum up the process and how such big elephants can end up in small rooms. This life lesson should help all of us to remain awake.

  10. I wonder now, after the trial, and after more revelations like this link Paterno to actively covering up Sanduksy’s crimes still feel the same. I stand behind what I wrote. All of the positive that he did only gave him, and thus Sandusky, more credibility. He did have the power, and was not afraid to wield it. He just failed to do so.

  11. Pingback: Feel angry, then do something | The Fat Pastor

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