I know nothing about football and even less about college football, but like so many Americans, I was riveted to the TV screen, last night, as the shocking story unfolded out of Penn State. Who were these men? How could they condone the evil of Jerry Sandusky? How could they place the interests of a football program or a university, for that matter, over their obligation to protect tiny, defenseless, scared little boys who were being raped? What kind of institutional culture turns a blind eye to the darkest of crimes?
Last night, when the Penn State Board of Trustees fired Joe Paterno, they did it in the “best interests of the university.” Sounds to me like that’s just the same old attitude. They needed and still need to act “in the best interests of the victims.” The value of an institution, no matter how big or how influential is still not as significant as the value of one tiny child. By not acting to stop him, the university is as culpable as Jerry Sandusky for perpetrating these crimes. And Penn State can only redeem itself when it appropriately addresses the needs of those who suffered in this unfathomable evildoing.
I’m sure Paterno, meanwhile, never would have guessed that his career as winningest football coach in NCAA history would end this way. But that’s life. It will build you up and then take you down. And sometimes it’s not what you do, but what you fail to do that most defines you. Paterno’s greatness will most definitely be defined by how he acts, now. Will he speak up for the victims? Will he stand up for them and do whatever is necessary to help them? Will he now become an advocate for victims of child sexual abuse? Will he do his part in ensuring that this never, ever happens again at Penn State or any other institution? It’s up to him. For all of his winnings, this is his real opportunity to do something truly significant and meaningful.