Joe Paterno, Football, and False Gods
Mr. Paterno seemed to be worthy of adulation, even of "reverence," a word that The Chronicle of Higher Education said characterized the widespread feeling for Joepa and Penn State football.
After all, wasn't this the same man who, in an a much-admired commencement speech, told Penn State's graduating class in 1973 that
To be in a locker room before a big game and to gather a team and to look at grown men with tears in their eyes, huddling close to each...reaching out to be part of each other...to look into strong faces which say "If we can only do it today"...to be with aggressive, ambitious people who have lost themselves in something bigger than they are--this is what living is all about.
We have shared four years together, years we will never forget, and we hope this short journey has made us all a little better.
Wasn't this the same man named Sportsman of the Year by "Sports Illustrated" in 1986, of whom writer Rick Reilly said
From whom else but Paterno did we learn that you can have 20-20,000 vision and still see more clearly than almost everybody else, that you can look like Bartleby but coach like Bryant, that you can have your kids hit the holes like 'Bama's and the books like Brown's, that the words ''college'' and ''football'' don't have to be mutually exclusive.
And this much is true: Joe Paterno spoke throughout his career of winning with honor, of living a life of integrity, of the importance of education, of giving back to the institutions that you love, of hard work.
So I get it. Those who worshiped at the altar of Paterno believed they had found a place where they were called to something higher, where they in their love and allegiance joined others, just as passionate, where they themselves were somehow better and finer for their worship.
And now what they have is this, a legacy forever stained by the suggestion that Mr. Paterno was not simply duped by a trusted friend, did not even simply stand aside and let evil continue, but was complicit in a criminal cover up. The Freeh report concludes that Mr. Paterno worked actively to preserve his reputation, the reputation of his football program, and the reputation of his school by closing the door on closer investigation of Mr. Sandusky. As Bob Costas put it, "He was among those who enabled Sandusky, not only to let him get away with what he had already done, but to continue to victimize other children."
Someone on CNN asked the other day if it's fair to characterize someone based on their worst mistake; I've preached on the fact that it seems unfair to Doubting Thomas to name him for a moment of weakness. But this is different: Mr. Paterno preached one thing, and lived another, and it is for this hypocrisy that he deserves to be condemned.
Instead of the sense of justice and compassion he evinced in his Penn State commencement speech, Mr. Paterno permitted those who were weaker and less fortunate to be victimized so he could maintain his position.
Instead of his oft-repeated and much-admired statement that money was not the be-all and end-all of life, a new New York Times report shows that the dying Mr. Paterno, in the midst of the Sandusky investigation, successfully negotiated a mountainous $5.5 million contract that would preserve his wealth and privilege even as the walls crumbled around him.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.
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