Joe Paterno: "He Deserved Better"

The headline on page 1 of the sports section caught my eye. A piece written by Jim Litke, Associated Press columnist, tells the behind-the-scenes story of the firing of legendary Penn State Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno last November. With Paterno’s death from lung cancer this Sunday, the wounds the university has suffered since the child molestation charges against Jerry Sandusky, one of Paterno’s assistant coaches, and the subsequent Paterno firing have broken open all over again. According to Litke, on the night of Paterno’s firing an assistant athletic director knocked on the door of the Paterno home and “wordlessly” handed him a note with the name and phone number of John Surma, vice chairman for Penn State Board of Trustees. Paterno dialed the number, asked for Surma and in that ‘mercilessly brief call, [he] was told that after nearly a half-century as head coach of the Nittany Lions, he was being fired ‘effective immediately’” (South Bend Tribune 1-23-12). When Paterno hung up from the short phone call, his wife Sue picked up that slip of paper, dialed the same number, and told the voice on the other end, “‘After 61 years he deserved better,’” and hung up. And who would disagree? No matter the magnitude of the legal charges against his assistant, no matter how complicit Joe Paterno was or wasn’t in responding to the reported incident years earlier, wouldn’t he still deserve, at the least, a personal visit from somebody “higher up” with word of the Trustees’ decision? How swift their decision—but how sad that “they couldn’t muster enough courage or decency to fire Paterno in person” (ibid). “After 61 years he deserved better.” But while I brooded over this story, I began to wonder about my own modus operandi. Have there been times when I’ve chosen to summarily dismiss someone (in my mind, if not in person) as being “guilty as charged,” without ever extending the common decency of allowing that person to explain his or her stance or behavior or choice? Do I find it easier to avoid Jesus’ Matthew 18 interpersonal relations admonition: “‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you’” (Matthew 18:15 NIV)? Do I avoid personal confrontation by hiding behind a board or committee action? In short, I wonder, does the Golden Rule (“Do to others what you would have them do to you”) get shelved, when I don’t have (take, really) the time to put myself in that other person’s place? “After 61  years he deserved better.” Sue Paterno was right. And so is Jesus: “‘By this all will know that you are My disciples [people], if you have love for one another’” (John 13:35). Because never mind Penn State. What counts for the Kingdom are the friends of the King. And it is that headline that lasts long past page one.

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