Joe Paterno, Football, and False Gods

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.

Instead of winning with honor, for at least a decade, Joe Paterno walked smiling onto the gridiron while living a lie.

It's too easy to condemn child rapers, hypocrites, leaders and institutions that fail us. That's not my reason for writing.

What is even more important is to recognize that all of us—even those who think of ourselves as good people, are admired and valued by others—are in danger of pursuing false gods that will lead us to destruction, because that is our human nature. Humans are always guilty of what Augustine called "cupiditas," the love of things that seem attractive but that don't last (which is to say, everything except God).

Mr. Paterno warned his later self in that 1973 commencement speech that

One of the tragedies of Watergate is to see so many bright young men, barely over thirty, who have so quickly prostituted their honor and decency in order to get ahead, to be admired, to stay on the "team." These same young people within the short period of the last ten years sat in convocations such as this. They were ready to change the world.... I warn you—don't underestimate the world—it can corrupt quickly and completely. And heed Walter Lippman who wrote several years ago: "It is a mistake to suppose that there is satisfaction and the joy of life in a self-indulgent generation, in one interested primarily in the pursuit of private wealth and private pleasure and private success—we are very rich but we are not having a good time—for our life though it is full of things, is empty of the kind of purpose and effort that gives to life its flavor and meaning."

What Lippman wants us to realize is that money alone will not make you happy: Success without honor is an unseasoned dish, it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good.

Likewise, Anne Lamott told graduating seniors in another fine commencement speech how

I got a lot of things that society had promised would make me whole and fulfilled—all the things that the culture tells you from preschool on will quiet the throbbing anxiety inside you—stature, the respect of colleagues, maybe even a kind of low-grade fame. The culture says these things will save you, as long as you also manage to keep your weight down. But the culture lies.

Both speeches were right. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish. But even more, success without faith, success without love, success without compassion, success without justice, will be ashes in your mouth.

False gods always are.

7/18/2012 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Joe Paterno
  • Jerry Sandusky
  • Progressive Christianity
  • Penn State
  • Christianity
  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    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,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.
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