Joe Paterno sat in his office back in 2002 and was doing what he did so well-focusing on football. He was the head coach of one of the great football powerhouses in the United States-the Nittany Lions of Penn State University. Every home game that the Nittany Lions played was packed to capacity-over 107,000 fans per game. Compare that to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who also play to a sellout crowd of 19,300.
Football at Penn State wasn’t just a game-it was big business. In 2010 the football team generated more than 106 million dollars in revenue and over $18 million in profit. Joe Paterno personally raised millions of dollars for the university. He was the most influential and admired person on campus.
Unlike many football coaches, Joe Paterno valued education. He insisted his athletes maintain their grades, and he had a special love for ancient Greek and Latin literature. When the university was about to cut the graduate classics department, Paterno raised the money to maintain the faculty. No wonder the library was named after him. Why, there was even a statue of him-and he wasn’t even dead yet!
But as Joe Paterno sat at his desk that day in 2002, a shaken graduate assistant told him that he had seen former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in a locker room shower. The allegation, if true, was an awful crime. At that moment, Joe Paterno had to make a decision on what he would do. He could call police. Or he could confront Jerry Sandusky personally. But he did neither of those things. Instead, he followed procedures, informed his superiors about the allegation, and then returned to the business of football. After all, he had so many important duties and so many people counting on him.
Should Joe Paterno have done more? After all, people looked up to him. If anyone could have pursued the case, it was the coach. He had enormous personal authority. He also knew that Jerry Sandusky ran a charity for underprivileged children-and that he was around young boys all the time. But he did nothing, except to inform his superiors. As it turned out, the university’s only response was to forbid Sandusky from bringing young boys on campus. The police were never notified of the allegations.
In 2011 Jerry Sandusky was finally arrested for sexual assault involving countless young boys over a 15-year period. Joe Paterno-the most winning coach in the history of U.S. college football-was fired by university trustees for his failure to take action.
No one denies Coach Paterno’s character or faith or decency-he should have retired in a blaze of glory for all his accomplishments in over 50 years at Penn State. Instead, he was forced to leave in disgrace, an 85-year-old man who couldn’t be bothered to take the office keys away from an alleged sexual predator.
Just weeks before his death from lung cancer on January 22, 2012, Paterno admitted to a reporter, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Tragic, isn’t it, that one incident should tarnish the legacy of one of the greatest football coaches of all time? For Joe Paterno, there was a moment of decision. He had to make a choice-and his choice was found wanting.
One of the poems I remember from high school was James Russell Lowell’s “Once to Every Man and Nation.” The poem, set to music, became a popular hymn and is included in Common Praise (ABC Publishing, 1998; hymn 587). Lowell wrote the poem in response to the reluctance of many northerners in the ante-bellum United States to confront their Southern brothers and sisters over the issue of slavery. Northerners, especially in New England, did not like slavery, but neither were they prepared to fight over it. “Keep the peace at any price” was the attitude of many. But Lowell disagreed. And so he wrote:
Once to every man and nation
comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side:
some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
offering each the bloom or blight;
and the choice goes by forever
‘twixt that darkness and that light.
Jesus had those moments of decision. In the wilderness he had to decide whether to affirm his call as God’s chosen one, the Messiah of Israel. Throughout his ministry he had to decide what kind of messiah he would be: a bread king, who gives people what they want, or a suffering servant, who gives his life as a ransom for many. And on that dark night before he died, in the Garden of Gethsemane where his sweat was as thick as drops of blood, he had to decide whether to submit to his Father’s will and embrace the cross or abandon his ministry and save his life.
Yes, Jesus had his moments of decision-and so do we. There come moments when we have to decide one way or another-to choose action or inaction, to raise our voice or to remain silent, to take a stand on principle or to go along with the majority, to move forward in faith or to hold back in fear, to do what is right or to do what is expedient, to act in our self-interest or to act for the common good.
United States President Harry Truman was a no-nonsense fellow from Missouri who valued personal responsibility. He might make the right decision or the wrong decision, but it was always his decision. On his desk he had a plaque that read, “The Buck Stops Here.” Truman knew full well that we are responsible for our actions. We can’t pass that responsibility to others. It’s our call, our choice.
Isn’t that the lesson of the Nuremburg trials after World War II when Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes? We have to take responsibility for our actions. We can’t give the excuse that we were acting under orders or that there was nothing we could do. There is always something we can do-we have the power of choice, the freedom to act one way or another.
Yes, we may end up being a martyr-think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or we may end up in prison-think of Nelson Mandela. Or we may have to forfeit a political career-think of Bishop Dennis Drainville who, at one time, was an Ontario MPP. When the NDP government moved to legalize gambling and insisted on a party-line vote to pass the legislation, Dennis said that his conscience would simply not allow him to vote for gambling and instead resigned from Parliament. That is a Canadian profile in courage.
By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ thy bleeding feet we track,
toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties;
time makes ancient good uncouth;
they must upward still and onward
who would keep abreast of truth.
When I was practising law in New York City, I struggled with how to respond to beggars on the street. Back in the mid-1970s, there were quite a few beggars in Manhattan who would greet commuters coming to work from the boroughs and suburbs. What would be the right thing to do when a beggar asks for money? Give them some spare change, a little conversation, maybe a shared prayer. But, if I came upon a panhandler unexpectedly-or if he was aggressive, or her behaviour a little too bizarre-I would go into avoidance mode. I began to realize that it takes practice “to do more.” Making the right decision in the right circumstance doesn’t just happen-you have to work at it.
Soldiers and athletes all understand that, for those times when things get tough, we have to train to do the right thing. We have to practise for those moments when we have to make a choice.
If there is one movie that you need to rent and see this Lenten season, it is the French film with English subtitles, Of Gods and Men. The film is a dramatic interpretation of a true life story.
In March 1996, seven monks from a Cistercian monastery in Algeria were kidnapped by Muslim radicals opposed to the country’s government. Two months later, their severed heads were found. Their bodies were never recovered. A state funeral for the monks in Algiers drew a crowd of 100,000.
The film examines the monks’ lives as they attended to the Muslim villagers around them and watched Algeria descend into violence from 1993 until their kidnapping. It shows the monks living in austerity, running a medical clinic for the poor and growing their own food as violence engulfs the countryside. The monastery is a house of peace where Muslim villagers and French Christians share a long history and mutual regard.
Yet war encroaches on that house of peace as fundamentalist Muslim rebels become more antagonistic to the monastery, and as government officials become more suspicious of the monks’ willingness to treat everyone in need of medical care. Both sides are heavily armed; both sides are given to brutality, and the monks are caught squarely in the middle.
Finally, the monks get word that both the Vatican and the French government want them to leave Algeria. It is at this point that a decision has to be made-to abandon the monastery and leave the villagers to the ensuing chaos, or to remain and face the imminent threat of death.
As they gather together to discuss the matter, the monks remember their vows. What kind of poverty is it if you leave and the people you’re connected to must stay?
The monks choose to remain at the monastery and face death rather than flee. And, of course, death is inevitable. The monks know that, yet they make their decision as persons of faith, even amidst their own doubts and fears.
As he casts his vote to stay, one of the monks-who stayed through the terrors of the Nazis and the war of Algerian liberation-says in a soft whisper: “I am a free man.”
Yes, we are free to choose and make decisions. We can choose life. We can choose love. We can choose to live by faith rather than be ruled by fear. Some things are more important than our comfort or safety, our self-interest or well-being, or even football and hockey. Sometimes we have to stand up and be counted-do the right thing, say the right word, act the right way-and let the consequences fall where they may.
In the end, whether we succeed or fail, we are in the hands of Almighty God, always and forever.
So take courage and heed the words of the poet:
Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon a throne be wrong,
yet that scaffold sways the future,
and, behind the dim unknown,
standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.