The Tough Lessons Learned From the Fall of Joe Paterno

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When I first became a grandfather, my daughter asked what I wanted my first grandson to call me. “Grandpa” made me feel too old, as did “Pops” and “Gramps.”

I finally settled on PhilPa in honor of JoePa — Joe Paterno — a role model for me. I graduated Penn State in June 1966, a few months before Paterno became the head coach, though he had already been an assistant there for 14 years.

Virtually every fall Saturday since I have graduated, I have been glued to my radio or television listening or watching the Nittany Lions.

When they win I am thrilled, moody when they lose. But win or lose, what mattered to me most was the way Penn State maintained a clean, reputable, competitive winning program. Success with honor.

This is a round about way of saying that I have been in a total funk ever since I first read the grand jury indictment of former iconic defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on child abuse charges and two high-ranking Penn State officials for perjury.

Since then, I have been trying to process my thoughts and feelings. I have denied, rationalized, conceptualized, intellectualized. I have been sad and angry.

I knew immediately upon reading the grand jury indictment how bad this story was, whether Paterno was legally implicated or not. This was Watergate, the Madoff Ponzi scheme and the Luzerne County judges’ “kids for cash” scandal story wrapped into one, with a huge Penn State bull’s eye on top.

You could almost hear U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, asking as he did at the Watergate hearings 39 years ago, “Just what did Penn State officials know, and when did they know it?”

Sandusky, like Madoff, was trusted because of his likability, success and his reputation for good deeds. As Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote recently, child molestors are not necessarily in trench coats hiding behind bushes. They are more likely to be near altars or be scout leaders or coaches.

In Madoff’s case, people invested their hard earned money with him. With Sandusky, people invested their most prized possession, their children.

In both cases, when questions or doubts were raised, each received more than his fair share of the benefit of the doubt whether it be from the police, school officials or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Not far from Centre County, the home of Penn State, we saw another group of youngsters victimized a few years ago by two Luzerne County judges who swiftly and cavalierly sentenced them to a for-profit juvenile facility the judges had a financial interest in. And the legal community, indeed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, initially ignored the miscarriage of justice that was being alleged by the children and their families.

JoePa was as much an educator as he was a football coach. Although he will no longer be on the sidelines, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from his downfall.

It’s time for university presidents and board of trustees to reclaim their athletic programs from high priced coaches, apparel companies, television networks and alumni boosters. Football and basketball have become a huge business, making a mockery of the so-called scholar athlete and undermining the moral integrity of our academic institutions and the university presidents and trustees that supposedly run them.

And the same can be said of any institution, non-profit or for-profit, which loses focus on its mission chasing the brass ring.

My sister, a fellow Penn Stater, asked me the other day what am I going to tell my grandchildren now that JoePa won’t be pacing the sidelines on Saturdays.

When they are older I will tell them about the importance of having the courage to talk truth to power. But now I will put the lesson in terms they can relate to. I will tell them if they ever see a classmate bullying someone even though they weren’t doing the bullying themselves, they have an obligation to tell the bully, even if it’s a friend, to cut it out.

For what the down fall of JoePa has sadly taught us is that you may be remembered not so much for the many good deeds you have done but more for what you should have done and didn’t.

John Lash’s column will return next Friday.



2 thoughts on “The Tough Lessons Learned From the Fall of Joe Paterno

  1. bullying? This has nothing to do with bullying, it has everything to do with pedophilia…have you talked to your kids about pedophiles? Or are you scared?