Joe Paterno 1926 – 2011

With apologies to Shakespeare, I come to bury Joe Paterno, not to praise him.

For the benefit of readers who actively ignore sports in general and college football in particular I’ll offer this summary. For over 40 years Joe Paterno was head football coach at Penn State University. In a sport with tremendous pressure to win at any cost and countless examples of high-level cheating, he was known for running a clean program. He contributed millions to charity and by all accounts was a good guy.

But when presented with evidence that one of his assistant coaches was molesting children he did the minimum required by law, which was essentially nothing. When those above him covered it up he did nothing.

When the whole affair became public last fall, Paterno was fired. He died from cancer yesterday – it is speculated that when he lost his coaching job he lost his identity and his will to live.

Today, some are consigning him to hell for his negligence in protecting children. Others are screaming that one moral failing, no matter how serious, shouldn’t tarnish the legacy of someone who did so much good over his 85-year life.

I’ll leave the weighing of Paterno’s heart to others and simply state the facts as I see them: rightly or wrongly, his legacy – how he will be remembered by future generations – is tarnished.

There’s a powerful lesson for all of us in this tragic series of events: we cannot ignore evil in our midst, no matter how difficult it may be to confront.

The pull of loyalty is strong – confronting evil in “them” is easy compared to confronting evil in a friend. Our own misdeeds and shortcomings may hold us back – we wonder how we can confront him about this when we’re doing that, whether or not “that” has any moral equivalence to “this.” It gets even harder when we benefit from the evil – we don’t want to know where things came from or how they were made.

None of us are perfect and moral purity is impossible, even if your moral code is grounded in naturalism and reason and not some archaic sacred text. “Compassion fatigue” is understandable and perhaps inevitable, if still regrettable. But there is a huge difference between moral imperfection and negligence in the face of evil.

What is evil? It’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line about pornography: you know it when you see it. I can’t tell you what circumstances should send you flying out of your chair and into battle.

But you can.

May we have the courage and strength to do what our hearts and our better selves tell us must be done.

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