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The memory and lessons of JoePa

January 26th, 2012

I am not a member of the Penn State family, but I grew up in Pennsylvania so I have some idea of what the school and its football team mean to people who live there. I’m also a Penn State fan, to some extent.

Joe Paterno was someone I admired because of his longevity at the helm of Penn State football and his strong character. He seemed to be the model of what college sports was all about.

Check that – he seemed to be the model of what college sports should be about.

Winning was important and Joe did it a lot, eventually becoming the most victorious head football coach in Division I history with 409 victories over his 46-year tenure at Penn State. But academics, building better men and graduating players were the most significant goals for Joe. Penn State consistently held high player graduation rates among the nation’s largest universities.

He did a lot for Penn State and college football. I guess I would even say that he did it “the right way,” to steal a line that has been often used.

But in early November, the nation turned its eyes to Happy Valley with the indictment of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on sex crime charges. The stories were harder to read with each passing day. Eventually, the school’s board of trustees felt they had no option but to fire, among others, its legendary head football coach. Questions over Joe’s ability to take control of his team during the scandal and whether he sufficiently fulfilled his moral obligation were part of the reason the board dismissed him.

People’s raw anger and sadness came out. We saw a riot break out on national TV. More questions kept being asked, and the answers were – and still are – few and far between.

The dust has settled a bit, so it’s time to take a step back and ask, “What if?”

What if Joe Paterno had actually done more? What if he had followed up with his bosses to see what was being done? What if he refused to keep this issue in-house?

What has unfolded in the last few months is incredibly unfortunate … and could have been significantly minimized or prevented altogether.

This is a lesson for all of us. When we see something wrong, we have an obligation to ourselves and to others around us to speak up. If something isn’t being done, then we have to be the driving forces for change. Our Jesuit education here at John Carroll teaches us this very thing, to be “men and women for others.”

We saw men lose their reputations and careers for failing to use their power to do the right thing. And, ultimately, while players and fans lose a coach, the victims and their families have lost much more. Pray for them and for all victims of abuse.

Joe Paterno made a grave error in judgment by not following the matter past informing his bosses. We’re all human beings. We’re all imperfect. Everyone makes mistakes, some with a bigger impact than others. But that by no means excuses his actions, or – in this case – his inaction.

Right now, though, it’s time to let the judging be done by someone greater than all of us. Keep in mind the turbulent last few months, but don’t let them completely define what Joe did throughout his 85 years on earth.

Rest in peace, JoePa.