Recently, Penn State took down their 900-lb bronze statue of Joe Paterno. The university’s action has been accepted divisively with some folks very much in favor of the removal and some folks very much oppose it. Arguments go back and forth on both sides and emotions run high. On one side you have people calling Paterno a hero and on the other side you have people calling him rather bad things. I don’t claim to be a Penn State football fan, or a family member or friend to one of Sandusky’s victims, so let me explain why, objectively, taking down the statue wasn’t wrong.
Joe Paterno was one of the winningest coaches in the history of any sport. In 2009 he was ranked number 13 on the top 50 coaches of all time in all sports. Over his tenure at Penn State, he led five undefeated teams to major bowl games. To put that in perspective, Bill Belichick has only lead an undefeated team to a Super Bowl one time.
Anyway, Joe Paterno’s record is sterling. The NCAA has never seen anything else like JoePa and it probably never will again. Obviously, it is easy to understand how so many people have fond memories of the legend and it is understandable that they would try to defend the legend. The people he inspired call JoePa a hero.
But can a man truly be called a hero for winning football games? Often when we think of heroes we think of fire fighters, police officers, and military soldiers and veterans. Even superheroes in the comic book universe share one key quality that makes them a hero: they are willing to make self-sacrifices. Self-sacrificing is what makes our heroes into heroes. When did Joe Paterno make sacrifices to help others? I’m sure at some point in time he made some sacrifices that were not motivated by his thirst for winning or advancement of his legacy, but I’m even more sure that self-interest took priority for Joe Paterno over the safety of children that he knew were in danger.
The report by former FBI director, Louis Freeh found that Joe Paterno was aware of what Jerry Sandusky was doing with the young boys that were entrusted in his care, and that there was much more that he could have done. Boys were being raped by 68-year old Sandusky and Joe Paterno did not contact the police. He knew that the University was going to cover up what was going on and he went along with it to protect himself and his legacy.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” -Edmund Burke
That quote sums up the tarnished Paterno legacy. You can win all the football games in the world, but when it comes to real life, when there are people who need help, when you are in a position to do good, that’s when your worth will really be defined. Joe Paterno succeeded on the football field, he succeeded financially, but he failed where it mattered most: He put his success before the safety of other human beings.
Joe Paterno ought to be a lesson for all of us. The lesson is not about sex abuse or cover ups. The lesson is about duty and obligation to our fellow man. When we are presented with a choice between our success and the protection of those weaker than ourselves, we must understand that our decision will define us for the world to see.