Update July 24, 2012. The following article was written before the investigation that showed what a big role Joe Paterno played in the coverup of the abuse that took place at Penn State Football. We no longer believe that the information on which this was based is accurate.
Instead, please see these articles:
Joe Paterno will be remembered because of the games he won, his commitment to winning “the right way,” and the athletes he inspired to be excellent students as well as excellent players. He will also be remembered for his failure of judgment in not insisting that action was taken when he was told that someone he knew had abused a child. Although it is very sad that Paterno ‘s glorious career ended with his being abruptly fired, it is far more sad that his failure to take more responsibility meant that Sandusky was not stopped sooner and that kids were not protected.
We can honor both Joe Paterno’s memory and the suffering of all victims of child abuse by doing everything in our power to understand what happened and to ensure that something like this never happens again. As a former NCAA champion coach told me, “What frightens me is that I could have made the same mistakes that Joe Paterno did for the same reasons. The lessons from his story mean that, if I become aware of a problem like this in the future, I am positive that I will have the knowledge and determination to do the right thing.”
From everything I have heard, Paterno was a decent, caring man as well as an amazing coach. I am completely convinced that if he had learned of someone being stabbed in his locker room, he would not have just reported it and then let it go. He would have fought hard to get help for the victim and to bring the assailant to justice.
Many truly good people fail to take action to stop child abuse for the same reasons Paterno failed – because they don’t know the questions to ask, because the sexual nature of abuse is embarrassing, because they don’t recognize what they learned about as being an assault, because they are ignorant of the significant damage abuse causes, because someone they know denies it, because they don’t know what to do, and because they believe someone else will take care of it.
In the last months of Paterno’s life, he took at least two important actions that are a tribute to his courage and integrity. Perhaps if he had lived, he would have become a great champion in the fight against bullying and abuse.
According to a November 21, 2011 ABC News story on Good Morning America, “The boy who first came forward to accuse former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky of sexual assault has been harassed so intensely that he had to leave high school, prompting ousted coach Joe Paterno to speak out against bullying.”
Although Paterno was deathly ill and must have been heartbroken, he had the courage to use his popularity to deliver a powerful message instead of saying nothing. His attorney J. Sedgwick Sollers told ABC News, “Coach Paterno strongly condemns harassment or bullying of any kind and he asks anyone who truly cares about Penn State to conduct themselves honorably and with respect for others.”
The other brave action was Paterno’s honesty in his interview with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. His explanation of what stopped him from taking responsibility to ensure that effective action was taken about what his assistant coach had told him – and his regret that he didn’t do more — provide important lessons in understanding the true enemies we need to conquer in fighting abuse – ignorance, denial, and misplaced trust.
As Paterno said in the interview, “ I never had to deal with something like that, and I didn’t feel adequate… I didn’t know exactly how to handle it, and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was.” These words resonate with what we hear from MANY parents who say they didn’t take action to protect their kids because they didn’t know what to do, they didn’t want to embarrass anyone, and they trusted someone they shouldn’t have. His concerns about university procedures highlight how very important it is that institutions have structures for preventing and addressing abuse in place and for ensuring that everyone understands them.
After being fired for his mistake, Paterno showed his dignity and commitment to high values. Although he was suffering from cancer and sadness, he had the courage and the integrity to speak up when the first boy who reported the abuse was blamed for his mistake – and to tell the truth about what led to his mistake and to show his devastation about the harm this caused. The lessons from his story can help us make progress in the fight against abuse and bullying.