EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this week, Joe Paterno passed away from lung cancer. His death added a new dimension to the controversy that has surrounded Penn State and the charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Many wondered, what will be Paterno’s legacy: as the winningest college football coach in history or as an accomplice to a child sex-abuse scandal? RELEVANT posted an op/ed column by Shaun King addressing this question. King’s stance was that, on some level, "we are all Joe Paterno"—that with the horrors of rape and abuse taking place all around the world, many of us are also guilty of not doing all we can to prevent and report injustice. A heated discussion followed. Though some readers were challenged by King’s charge for advocacy, many more bristled at the comparison of apathy to conspiracy. Some felt the message could be harmful to victims of abuse. Others still believed Paterno’s role in the Penn State scandal should overshadow his successes on the football field. As we watched the conversation unfold, we felt it was important to offer readers another op/ed on this very sensitive issue. We invited Dianna Anderson to share her thoughts on King’s piece, Paterno’s passing and how Christians should reflect on Paterno’s mistakes:
In one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who, The Doctor reassures his companion with these words: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. … The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa; the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
I believe this is the point that Shaun King was attempting to make when he wrote his column entitled “We Are All Joe Paterno,” saying, “He was so great that I think the ultimate story about him will eventually outshine the awful ugliness of a child molestation scandal that happened right under his nose—on his watch, by his coordinator, on his turf.”
However, I believe this point is misguided.
The thesis of the column is that we are all like Joe Paterno, in that we know child rape happens all around the world, and yet we do nothing. The idea is that if we are appalled at Paterno’s actions to ignore the child rape he was told was happening (and I refuse to call what Sandusky did "molestation"), then we must also be appalled at our own complicity in perpetuating human trafficking and child rape around the world.
But Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky case was not one slip-up, just one time. He had been told that Sandusky had hurt at least one child. It’s not out of the question to think Paterno might have suspected there were other children involved. Every morning, for the course of more than a decade, he woke up and knowingly didn’t follow up on information that could have saved numerous children from being victimized. Every day, he made the decision not to pursue the Sandusky issue. Every day, Paterno decided to cover up his knowledge about someone we now know has been charged with multiple counts of child rape. Every day, he chose to continue with the comfortable status quo as "JoePa" rather than putting his reputation on the line to stop horrific crimes that were potentially being committed against children.
To say that "we are all Joe Paterno," is not to say we are guilty on some level like Joe Paterno, but instead it downplays what Joe Paterno did, implying it wasn’t really all that bad. It erases Joe Paterno’s actions to equate them with apathy, rather than what they were—an active decision to continue turning aside, to continue ignoring what was happening in front of his face and on his watch.
Apathy is a very real and very important problem. Indeed, I am guilty of apathy every time I go to Starbucks rather than taking the time to make my own coffee at home (which is a better decision, socioeconomically speaking). I’m guilty of apathy when I buy clothing from a questionable company because it’s cheap rather than taking the time to save up for fairly traded goods. And you’re probably guilty of the same kind of apathy.
But Joe Paterno’s sin was not apathy. Joe Paterno participated—consciously or not—in a cover-up and a conspiracy. And in the pile of good things and the pile of bad things that is Joe Paterno’s life, covering up child rape is a pretty weighty “bad thing.” Far weightier, I believe, than the good that was his football coaching record.
To define and defend what Joe Paterno did as “apathy” is to erase the victims, to ignore the very real consequences of very real actions. Saying, “If it is true that Joe Paterno is a bad man for not doing more (and maybe it is) …” is to allow equivocation where there should be none.
Apathy isn’t what makes Paterno’s actions despicable. Over the course of more than 3,500 days, Paterno actively decided not to say anything, not to follow up and to continue to allow Sandusky access to Penn State facilities, knowing he had never been formally charged with his abuse of children. Paterno chose silence over action, when he knew that his action could stop sexual abuse.
Dianna Anderson has a day job as a radio producer in Chicago, IL, where she is one of several producers on a program for English Language Learners. She moonlights as a feminist blogger, taking a critical eye to church, media and country. Her blog can be found at http://www.diannaeanderson.net.