So that nothing which follows gets misunderstood, let’s start with first things. (1) Joe Paterno failed a slew of innocent children, his institution, and his calling by not doing more about Jerry Sandusky. (2) The minute the Sandusky case broke, Paterno should have resigned. (3) Because he did not step down, Penn State was absolutely right to fire him.
With that out of the way, though, I’d suggest that there’s something troubling about the righteous indignation we’re seeing about Paterno. I’m not sure where it comes from. Maybe it’s just the inchoate rage which follows when a monster like Sandusky is discovered. But it strikes me as wrong-headed because it misses something important. The lesson of Paterno’s fall isn’t that Joe Paterno is a bad man and a hypocrite. It’s that this world is so fallen that even good men–and Paterno is, by nearly every measure, a very good man–can fail the tests Providence puts before them.
Tom Boswell gets at this question nicely in his column from earlier this week:
Everybody has weak spots in their character, fault lines in their personality where the right earthquake at the wrong time can lead to personal catastrophe. Most of us are fortunate that our worst experience doesn’t hit us with its biggest jolt in exactly the area where our flaws or poor judgment or vanity is most dangerously in play. It’s part good luck if we don’t disgrace ourselves.
But when it does happen, as appears to be the case with Joe Paterno, that’s when we witness personal disasters that seem so painful and, in the context of a well-lived life, so unfair that we feel deep sadness even as we simultaneously recognize that the person at the center of the storm can never avoid full accountability.
I’m not trying to excuse Paterno when I suggest that had he gone to the authorities when he was told about Sandusky–and not just to the AD–then I suspect the ensuing firestorm would have cost him his job then, too. He was in his early 70s. He would have been a liability for the university even if he was blameless. My guess is that it would have meant the end for him and that he knew it. So an old man already facing mortality was given the choice of doing the right thing and sacrificing his life’s work, or turning a semi-blind eye to preserve his career.
He made the wrong choice. It was, in the very Greek sense of the work, tragedy.
What’s worth reflecting on is that these kinds of choices are more common than you think. And it isn’t just the wicked who fail them.
For me, Paterno’s fall calls to mind two people, with two choices. The first is Cardinal Bernard Law, a holy man who failed both God and his flock in ways reminiscent of Paterno. The other is Cassie Bernall, the junior at Columbine High School who was was asked, at the pain of death, “Do you believe in God.” She answered, “Yes.”
When good men like Paterno fail their test, I’d argue that they deserve not scorn, but pity.
Their example should make us pray that such a cup is never put before us. And that if it is, we are given the strength to be better than ourselves.