Why I Am Not Joe Paterno

EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier this week, Joe Paterno passed away from lung cancer. His death added a new dimension to the controversy that has surrounded Penn State and the charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Many wondered, what will be Paterno's legacy: as the winningest college football coach in history or as an accomplice to a child sex-abuse scandal? RELEVANT posted an op/ed column by Shaun King addressing this question. King's stance was that, on some level, "we are all Joe Paterno"—that with the horrors of rape and abuse taking place all around the world, many of us are also guilty of not doing all we can to prevent and report injustice. A heated discussion followed. Though some readers were challenged by King's charge for advocacy, many more bristled at the comparison of apathy to conspiracy. Some felt the message could be harmful to victims of abuse. Others still believed Paterno's role in the Penn State scandal should overshadow his successes on the football field. As we watched the conversation unfold, we felt it was important to offer readers another op/ed on this very sensitive issue. We invited Dianna Anderson to share her thoughts on King's piece, Paterno's passing and how Christians should reflect on Paterno's mistakes:

In one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who, The Doctor reassures his companion with these words: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. … The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice-versa; the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

I believe this is the point that Shaun King was attempting to make when he wrote his column entitled “We Are All Joe Paterno,” saying, “He was so great that I think the ultimate story about him will eventually outshine the awful ugliness of a child molestation scandal that happened right under his nose—on his watch, by his coordinator, on his turf.”

However, I believe this point is misguided.

The thesis of the column is that we are all like Joe Paterno, in that we know child rape happens all around the world, and yet we do nothing. The idea is that if we are appalled at Paterno's actions to ignore the child rape he was told was happening (and I refuse to call what Sandusky did "molestation"), then we must also be appalled at our own complicity in perpetuating human trafficking and child rape around the world.

But Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky case was not one slip-up, just one time. He had been told that Sandusky had hurt at least one child. It's not out of the question to think Paterno might have suspected there were other children involved. Every morning, for the course of more than a decade, he woke up and knowingly didn't follow up on information that could have saved numerous children from being victimized. Every day, he made the decision not to pursue the Sandusky issue. Every day, Paterno decided to cover up his knowledge about someone we now know has been charged with multiple counts of child rape. Every day, he chose to continue with the comfortable status quo as "JoePa" rather than putting his reputation on the line to stop horrific crimes that were potentially being committed against children.

To say that "we are all Joe Paterno," is not to say we are guilty on some level like Joe Paterno, but instead it downplays what Joe Paterno did, implying it wasn’t really all that bad. It erases Joe Paterno’s actions to equate them with apathy, rather than what they were—an active decision to continue turning aside, to continue ignoring what was happening in front of his face and on his watch.

Apathy is a very real and very important problem. Indeed, I am guilty of apathy every time I go to Starbucks rather than taking the time to make my own coffee at home (which is a better decision, socioeconomically speaking). I’m guilty of apathy when I buy clothing from a questionable company because it’s cheap rather than taking the time to save up for fairly traded goods. And you’re probably guilty of the same kind of apathy.

But Joe Paterno’s sin was not apathy. Joe Paterno participated—consciously or not—in a cover-up and a conspiracy. And in the pile of good things and the pile of bad things that is Joe Paterno’s life, covering up child rape is a pretty weighty “bad thing.” Far weightier, I believe, than the good that was his football coaching record.

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To define and defend what Joe Paterno did as “apathy” is to erase the victims, to ignore the very real consequences of very real actions. Saying, “If it is true that Joe Paterno is a bad man for not doing more (and maybe it is) …” is to allow equivocation where there should be none.

Apathy isn’t what makes Paterno’s actions despicable. Over the course of more than 3,500 days, Paterno actively decided not to say anything, not to follow up and to continue to allow Sandusky access to Penn State facilities, knowing he had never been formally charged with his abuse of children. Paterno chose silence over action, when he knew that his action could stop sexual abuse.

Dianna Anderson has a day job as a radio producer in Chicago, IL, where she is one of several producers on a program for English Language Learners. She moonlights as a feminist blogger, taking a critical eye to church, media and country. Her blog can be found at http://www.diannaeanderson.net.

Join the discussion: Have you read Shaun's piece? What do you think of Dianna's response? What are your thoughts on Joe Paterno, the Penn State controversy and his legacy?



eeb136 commented…

As I said before in a reaction to a previous comment, it was in hindsight he realized the deep error of his decisions in this situation - and it broke his heart. But lessons others learn in hindsight are opportunities for the rest of us not to make the same mistakes. So, in that respect, I'm thankful. And rather than lambaste him for his mistakes, I'd rather choose to learn from the mistake and move on.

My purpose in talking about Joe Paterno's heart and good deeds wasn't to provide a subjective view of this situation. Objectivity has it's place, I completely agree. However, my post's goal wasn't to be objective; it was to urge others to look at his life with perhaps a more appropriate perspective. I think we're often so quick to criticize and judge, not to seek to understand or forgive. Maybe I was hoping that if others could view him for who he was, not just who they perceived him to be, they could exhibit more of the latter.

Also, I should say that while I graduated from Penn State (I was actually on campus at the time of the incidents, living about a quarter mile from where the incidents described in the Sandusky Grand Jury transcript took place), I never idolized Paterno or the university. I never even understood who Joe Paterno was or really cared about him or our football team until I attended the school. And even then...I think I had a better perspective of who he was and what he meant AFTER I left campus. On campus, he was just a name - a figure or institution. After I left, I better understood the man in total. And with that perspective, I realize he was a tremendous gift to all around him, despite, I believe, the actions involving one very sick man.One other note: I believe the alumni at large don't sympathize with the university. They abhor what the administrators did and how the Board of Trustees weren't proactive or upfront in the situation, both when the story reached the climax in the press and public and when they were made aware of the situation in the '90's and 2002. And it's going to take years for that trust to be restored.


Chad W commented…

This Relevant article is THE biggest joke I have ever seen about Joe Pa and an extreme example of hypocrisy. If you want know why Joe Pa is in no way involved in a 'cover up' and know why the ridiculously uninformed view that he did nothing to stop it is wrong, please read this:https://www.facebook.com/photo...


Jo commented…

Thanks for the input Alex.I am well aware how information can get twisted so it is nice to get some further feedback on it.

If you're input is correct, it may be that Paterno was looking to ensure procedurally things were being handled correct which can work as a safeguard for both parties, especially with second-hand info.Although, considering the severity of the accusations it would have benefitted the victims for all to havefollowed-up. God knows what was his underlying motivation

I personally have learned to never say never because I asked God to keep me humble and relying on Him and it seems that when I get confident in what I will do and to the point of looking down on others, I am put in a situation where I can find myself hesitating and even doing what I thought I would not do...speaking of how it seems to go with me.

I'm not saying we can't be angry about the situation, judge it, and the other person's behavior and condition at the time, but when we make comparisons and judge each other against each other in a way that looks down on another of ourselves.

After this Paterno incident I remember saying how horrific it all was, but my heart wouldn't allow me to judgepersonally of my own because of my previous humbling experiences.I know if not for God's grace, I am the worst of all sinners.

And as if stressing to me how things can become clouded and such at the time I made that comment I was involved in a discussion that I felt others were acting abusive. Anyone that knows me knows that when I've what I felt was abuse I was quick to get involved, although the last year or so I am not that quick to respond anymore. Why?

Some reasons: What I've at times perceived as abusive to others, including the one I felt was being abused,seemed to be ok with it so I thought and felt at timesmaybe I was being overly-sensitive.At times the one I tried to help had turned on me too and I have joked that I feel like Moses trying to rescue Israel before the time it right. I think sometimes it was that I could see it was wrong, but it wasn't necessarily abusive (at times).

So these things are running through my head clouding my vision: Oh, this looks awful and it is wrong, but is this really abuse that needs intervention or is the other ok with it, and all.Am I overly sensitive in what I am seeing here.

And I did try to diffuse the situation, but handledthings very lightly.

And there was some concern for myself too: If I intervened and everyone is ok with it and even the victim turns on me too I am going to look like a fool again (I generally don't mind looking like a fool, but I won't deny it was an issue then).

Well, shortly thereafter the Lord gave me a scenario that I felt fit exactly what was happening and the way He showed it to me was that He removed all those musings in my head and just layed it out for me and I saw it was CLEARLY abuse and horrific at that. Well, once God lays it out for you all the musings and concerns for others and yourself go (it's very irrelevant then)and I went in and did something about it, and have kept tabs on things.

Here are some points thatI found very insightful in what the Lord showed me that has been brought up in the articles on the Penn State and Paterno issue.

The scene: If first started with me personally coming across the situation (a point that was first made by hhh on the previous article). I saw as clear as day that a child was being punished for doing something they did wrong by way of being made to carry something too heavy for them. When they unintentionally dropped it because of the weight, they were beaten on by anadult (it's mom)in an ugly violent way. The scene ended there as if saying, "What are you going to do about it?"

I felt it called for immediate action and so I did do something about it. Can I expect the same from the world? I do believe we all have some light within our conscience and we as believers need to continue to pray and uphold those Godly things that would steer society in that direction.

Thing too is that in real life it involved all adults, but as the Lord showed it to me I saw a child being beaten up by an adult. I believe the child respresents the spiritual maturity / age of development and it was clearly wrong for such an attack to take place on child and we are called to defend the defenseless.

But again, second-hand info can be tricky (I don't know if he bought it as truth or was unsure and then the other things that may have been clouding his vision for whatever reason that may not necessarily have been selfish, but may have, God knows...maybe a touch of both?).

Ether way considering the severity of the situation and circumstances like children that need our protecting,I feelitshould have been followed up on by all parties.

We really need to educate our children, even those that we haven't physically birthed. There is so much talk nowadays in Christian circles about trusting each other and opening up. God is always trustworthy and we can always bear open our hearts and souls to him, people, that's a whole different story. I don't believe living in suspicion inthe answer because that can open one to all sorts of issues (and I do believe in giving peope the benefit of the doubt), but by God do see the wisdom in precautions and don't let anyone tell you that you are not a better Christian than them because you don't take your clothes off in front of them. They may call you a fake and speak about all the issues they think you have, don't buy their words, even if you want to prayerfully consider if there is some truth in it, but you follow what the Lord puts on your heart and gives you for your personal life. As the Lord told me, "If we would listen to the Holy Spirit for ourselves HE would put that Word in us and heal us." I don't believe that means we aren't to take man's words into prayerful consideration for that is not what He has revealed in his Word and He does use others. I believe it means that ultimately it is his revealed Word through his Holy Spirit that we need to heed...the Lord's Spirit can show us what we need and implant it in us.

I also believe need tougher laws. You abuse it, you lose it. I think we are too humanitarian with our laws even as I recognize some precautions need to be taken. And I realize it won't stop it but I do believe it will help, even if just that people would seek help more quickly.


Zach commented…

When I am unsure of any situation--how the events unfolded, who said or did what, the simplest minutiae that I know from my own life can have a drastic impact on my decision making process...I have learned the hard way that I must allow the Spirit to humble my heart and extend grace to the subjects involved. Extending grace does not mean that sin gets swept under the rug but it does mean that I forfeit my prideful assumption of the role of the accuser. 98% of people do what they feel is the right thing in hard situations, and rarely do they hit the standard in the nose. I find it hard to believe that a man could have as long of a career as Paterno had free of scandal without having a strong moral center. Did he fail to act appropriately? Absolutely. Would I have done the same thing? Quite possibly.

Saying we are all Joe Paterno doesn't make light of the fact that his response was inadequate, and therefore plagued with the curse of sin. It merely strips us of the ability to finger point, directs our hearts toward humility, and brings us to our knees lamenting the sins of this world and our own hearts

Meaghan Smith


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