There is an old saying: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This can lead to many discussions, as would “The sound of one hand clapping.” But this is not a philosophical discussion, but rather a look at the fall of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. He fell from grace and there were plenty of people around to say “Timber!” That is all fine and good enough, but the chopping down of this man and his legacy is all bluster if something much more significant does not follow.
I think many of us were shocked when we heard students were protesting the removal of Paterno as coach by the Board of Trustees at Penn State. Was this because Paterno is the most successful coach in Division I history? Was it because of his relationship with his players and the fans? Whatever the case, the students who engaged in turning over a news van, smashing car windows, and clashing with police are misguided in their efforts. Make no mistake, they are no Occupy Wall Streeters who have a social agenda – they are there to defend a man who allowed something sinister to pass his way and did nothing substantial to stop it.
Of course, most of these students are probably not parents. If they were they wouldn’t have mustered a word of support for this man. The questions are abundant and the answers meager in terms of why Paterno did not do more than to report to university officials about alleged sexual assaults by former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Paterno’s supporters say he did what he was supposed to do by notifying superiors, but that should not have sufficed because the coach had to realize that nothing was being done about it.
If you compare this scandal with the sexual abuse cases concerning Catholic priests, you can see some similarities. In many cases a pastor may have reported a case of suspected sexual abuse against a minor, but usually that stayed within the realm of the diocese where it took place, with superiors moving the offender to another parish where he was likely to commit the same crime again. This kind of internal handling of these things doesn’t work and is incongruous to wanting to handle the larger problem at hand: stopping and punishing the deviants who abuse children.
Despite its history of covering up its dirty laundry, the Catholic Church saw the light thanks to an awakening that may have come through divine intervention, but most likely arose because of millions of dollars in lawsuits. Here in the United States the church has started the Virtus Program to “protect God’s children.” This is a substantial effort by the church to train and educate adults in order to protect the most vulnerable among us.
The firing of Joe Paterno is a good first step for Penn State, but that has to be the start of something much more substantial. Besides getting their house in order (calming down students, finding out how many college officials knew about this case, etc.), their efforts to stop this disgraceful behavior from ever happening again have to continue long after the press and public stop rattling their cage.
Penn State has to take the lead here. It must set high standards for all employees, students, and teams. Something like Virtus must be initiated that will provide continuing education that allows all parties to recognize situations and individuals who may be predators. This effort must go beyond the firing of employees to putting the fire of knowledge and understanding into them. They have to be infused with the awareness that something like this can never, ever happen again, but if it does, that genuine protocols will be in place to handle the situation immediately.
A once mighty star has fallen at Penn State, and there will be those who do not get it and never will, but they cannot be allowed to dictate how this situation is handled. At this point Joe Paterno and his legacy mean nothing. He now becomes an enabler, someone who will not be remembered for winning games and anything else he has done. Now he is at best a bystander who was no innocent. He knew what was happening and did nothing substantial to stop it, like a captain of a ship who doesn’t notify his passengers that it is going down.
Unfortunately, that puts him and Sandusky in the same sinking boat, and all the life preservers in the world cannot rescue them. Whoever joins them in that vessel (and there will no doubt be more revelations to come) is going down too. Drowning is a terrible way to die, but that is nothing compared to what Sandusky’s victims had to endure and have to continue to live with for the rest of their lives. As Joe goes down after his last breath he will eventually be remembered not for what he has done but what he failed to do. That is a fitting legacy to be sure.
Photo Credits: Penn State students – AP; Joe Paterno – NY Daily News