Why Joe Paterno Failed Us


“Defend the poor and fatherless: Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.” – Psalm 82:3-4

In reflecting on the heinous allegations leveled toward Penn State athletic and administrative officials of covering up the reprehensible behavior of Jerry Sandusky, my stomach churns with each article. There’s one phrase the gnaws at me: “Joe Paterno’s legacy.”

Like legacies are something we should be discussing now. Besides, legacies are mostly subjective anyway and are largely fleeting for many people.

But it’s one man’s relentless quest to build an impeccable legacy that has us talking about allegations from 2002.

Joe Paterno failed when it came to understanding what a legacy is and isn’t. Legacies aren’t carefully constructed; they are simply the end result of our decisions – good and bad. Lasting legacies are more about the kind of person you were, the things you stood up for – not the list of things you accomplished.

Renowned for his rigid control over an air-tight program, Paterno obviously surmised that the information delivered to him by an eye-witness on his staff wasn’t that important. Pass it along, pass the buck. Who knows what kinds of conversations went on between Paterno and Sandusky, but it obviously wasn’t the difficult type you would expect between two friends.

“This is a tragedy,” Paterno said in a prepared statement – nine years after his inaction. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

The problem is Paterno was looking too far into the future to face the challenges in the present. The legendary 84-year-old coach who is beloved by Penn State fans everywhere lasted long enough to become the winningest college football coach in Division I history. As his tenure continued – long past his ability to make the program perennially competitive – it was clear that the goal was etching his name in the record books, no matter what he might say to the contrary.

Paterno can tell us it was about fashioning young boys into men and that it’s not just about football, but his actions – or in this case, his inaction – belies his claims.

And for a coach who has a reputation of always playing by the rules and never having a major NCAA infraction levied against you, it’s natural to wonder why he made an exception for Sandusky.

For this isn’t the kind of thing that exceptions should ever be made about. Stealing innocence from young impressionable boys. From a man they trusted and believed to be safe. Paterno’s continued relationship with Sandusky at Penn State can only be viewed as a validation of the former assistant. People trusted Paterno. If he remained in a relationship with Sandusky then Sandusky must be safe. You could send your kids to camp with him and it would be okay.

But it wasn’t – and it hasn’t been for quite some time, if ever.

Let us not waste this opportunity to remember that choosing to do the right thing in every situation is the right thing. Even when it’s tough. Hindsight is only painful when you’re not willing to make good decisions – as difficult as they might be – in the present.

Joe Paterno may have won a lot of football games, but his failure to protect the innocent doesn’t taint his legacy – it is his legacy.

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