Earlier today, I heard the news that Joe Paterno had died. The legendary coach of the Nitany Lions had succumbed to the lung cancer that was discovered (or at least made public) just days after he lost his long-standing job at the helm of Penn’s States football program. It was a sad end to a sad affair. A man who was once renowned for the discipline and integrity that he instilled in others, had his life end with questions still unanswered about whether he lived by the same lessons he taught. In the only sit-down interview that Coach Paterno gave on the subject he described his lack of confidence in dealing with the sensitive accusations that were made against one of his assistants, and the amount of confidence he placed in the authorities above him. He expressed regret for not doing more; yet at the time of the allegations, believed to have done what was required of him.
Obviously, the truly sad thing about this whole ordeal is that, if the allegations are true, young and vulnerable boys were taken advantage of and have assuredly since suffered in deep and unimaginable ways. This is the true tragedy and in writing about how this situation has affected Coach Paterno, one can not forget that. Yet at the same time, as I read the reports of JoPo’s death, I couldn’t help but think how differently his obituaries would have read if he had passed away just a year earlier. He would have been heralded and celebrated. Now, each report concludes with the obligatory notice that the legend which once shined so bright has since been tarnished.
It’s remarkable if you think about it. Just one small decision – a decision that, if what Coach Paterno told the reporter is correct, could be defended in a court of law. He followed university policy, yet because his subsequent actions didn’t indicate that he took steps to prevent any further atrocities, his legacy is marked by an asterisk. “Coach Paterno was the winningest coach in Division 1 history.” And then the asterisk – yet the end of his career was marked by scandal. “He gave millions to the university and by all reports was beloved by the student body.” Asterisk – yet he didn’t move boulders and barriers to ensure the protection of a young, vulnerable boy. Each acclamation met by the counter-point. He was great – but was he really?
One day, maybe the asterisks will fade. Maybe they will once again talk mostly about his accomplishments on the field. But it will also be there, lingering in the shadows. When one person starts to celebrate him – someone else will bring up the asterisks.
And there’s a lesson in that for all of us. Maybe we will not fall as far as Coach Paterno because we will never be on such a grand stage – but just like he discovered, the small decisions that we make matter. When we do what we “have” to do and not what we “should” do, we’re making choices that will effect how others perceive us. We are quite possibly tarnishing our witness for Christ – based on something that the courts would pardon. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; Christ made it clear – His standards are higher. And we should make sure we live according to them – and be wary of the asterisks.