Lessons from Coach Paterno


Penn State's students are learning tough lessons this week: Moral responsibility for our children is bigger than football or fame. When you fail, or appear to have failed, you don't get to pick how you are confronted. You don't get to pick the consequences, either.

If you missed this news, here's the gist: Legendary football coach Joe Paterno-the Nittnay Lions' head coach for 46 seasons and the winningest Division I coach ever with 409 victories-was fired Wednesday night for his role in an alleged child sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Sandusky retired in 1999 but continued to use the school's facilities for his work with The Second Mile, a foundation he established in 1977 to help at-risk kids and where authorities say he encountered the boys he has been charged with molesting.

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In 2002, a graduate assistant informed Paterno that he witnessed Sandusky assaulting a young boy in the school's showers. Paterno informed school officials, but neither they nor Paterno reported the incident to police, and Sandusky was allowed to continue to have access to the football complex.

Last Saturday, police arrested Sandusky on 40 criminal charges, including multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corruption of minors, indecent assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and unlawful contact with a minor.

"This is a tragedy," Paterno, 84, said in a statement. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Hindsight won't help at least eight boys who were allegedly assaulted by Sandusky over a 15-year period. We rely on grown-ups to be wise, careful, and forward thinking - especially when it comes to protecting children.

Paterno is not in trouble for his actions in this case, but for his lack of action. He committed the sin of omission-the failure to do what one can and ought to do. When Paterno's supervisors did nothing about the accusations, the coach should have gone to the authorities himself.

After the university's board of trustees announced Wednesday evening that Paterno had been dismissed, student protests erupted on campus. Approximately 2,000 protesters took over a two-block area near the school. Many carried signs supporting Paterno and chanted, "We want Joe back!" and "Hell no, Joe won't go!" The angry crowd toppled a media van and damaged at least two light poles. Students told WJAC-TV (Johnstown, Penn.) that news coverage focused too much on Paterno and not enough on Sandusky.

Reuters reporter Ian Simpson asked one of the student demonstrators, Nicole Atlak, a freshman, how she felt about Paterno's firing: "Absolutely disgusted. From a student's perspective, it's like where do we go from here? …We no longer have a 45-year legacy."

That's right. The legacy is ruined. Lives are, too.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sarah Padbury
Sarah Padbury

Sarah is a writer, editor, and adoption advocate. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Sarah and her husband live with their six teenagers in Castle Rock, Colo.


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