The tragedy of Joe Paterno

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The tragedy of Joe Paterno

November 9, 2011 - Jim Denison, PhD

Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno is helped to his residence by his son Scott (L) after speaking to a group of students rallying at the house in State College, Pennsylvania, November 8, 2011 (Credit: Reuters/Tim Shaffer)

A week ago, Joe Paterno was the most revered coach in college football.  This week he may be unemployed.

His Penn State team recently defeated Illinois, making Paterno the winningest coach in Division I history.  He has been head coach of the Nittany Lions for 46 years, winning two national titles.  He was renowned for the honesty and integrity with which he taught and coached.  Now he has been linked to a horrible scandal involving his former defensive coordinator.

Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 40 criminal counts related to the sexual abuse of young boys.  Nine years ago, a graduate assistant saw one such incident and reported it to the coach.  Paterno did what policy dictates–he referred the allegation to athletic director Tim Curley, and university vice president Gary Schultz was informed as well.  But neither took action.  While Curley and Schultz have now been charged with perjury and failure to report the alleged crimes, Paterno will not be charged with a crime.  However, he apparently did nothing to pursue the investigation.

Coach Paterno is venerated at Penn State and consistently graduates one of the highest percentages of athletes in college football.  However, in the wake of this scandal, today’s New York Times reports that he will not coach another season and may be fired soon.  Sports Illustrated states that “Joe Paterno must go now.”

This is a horrible way for Paterno’s coaching career to end and a terrible stain on his legacy.  But the greatest tragedy is that on his watch, eight boys were allegedly abused by his assistant over a 15-year period.  They are innocent victims who will live the scars of their abuse for the rest of their lives.

This scandal proves that there is no such thing as private sin.  Jesus warned us: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Matthew 10:26).  Moses told the Israelites, “You may be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).  Our legacy is forged by what we do in private, not just in public.

Now Coach Paterno has a chance to do the right thing, seeking to atone for his failure by proving that he is the man we thought he was.  He should apologize personally and directly to the men victimized by his employee.  He should lead Penn State to take steps ensuring that such a failure of accountability does not happen again.  And he should resign for the sake of his players, protecting them from this scandal and its repercussions.

Wise King Solomon observed that “the integrity of man walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9).  Daniel’s enemies “could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent” (Daniel 6:4).  Can your critics say the same of you?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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