Even if you're not a football fan, you've probably heard the news about Penn St football. A beloved former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, will face trial on 40 counts of sexual abuse of young boys. The legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, was fired Wednesday, along with the University president, for not reporting Sandusky's actions to the authorities. Two more school administrators face criminal charges for lying to cover up these crimes. Another assistant coach, Mike McQueary, is under heavy public criticism because he witnessed one of the incidents, but simply told his head coach, and did not go to the authorities either. As of this writing, he is still employed by Penn St, and is expected to coach in their game this Saturday against Nebraska.
There are many more details that I will not share here, because I frankly wish I did not know them myself. The irony of all of this is that Penn St has long been seen as a bastion of all that is right with college sports. With their trim navy-and-white uniforms and helmets with no logos, they look like a team from the 1950s, not the flashy, video-game obsessed modern day. And Paterno, with his bryll-cream hairdo, thick black glasses, and nasally Brooklyn accent, always seemed like a throw-back to an earlier time as well. There's a reason for that: He started at Penn St. as a player in 1950, then served as an assistant coach before becoming head coach in 1966. Now 84, he has always been seen as a coach who did it the right way. His players graduated at a high rate. There were no stories of boosters paying recruits, no reports of Penn St players being arrested. And, of course, he won. A lot. This season, on a snowy day in October, he won his 409th game, making him number one in wins for a division I head coach. I suppose the university was capitalizing on this timing when they rolled out their new advertising campaign for the fall. All universities advertise themselves during their own football games, but Penn St this season has been running ads during nearly every televised game on every network. In the ads, a series of attractive young people are shown studying, accomplishing great things, while in the background, we hear the chant often heard at Nittany Lion football games: "WE ARE...PENN STATE!"
And now these stories come out. Now we are treated to the sight of Penn State students rioting in protest over their coach's firing, and countless articles written by journalists who once fawned over Paterno and Penn St, now seething with righteous indignation; now we witness a former Penn St player, Matt Millen, a tough, imposing man, break down on live television trying to explain how this could have happened at the program he loves.
We debate the issues among ourselves in personal conversations and on the internet: Was Paterno culpable? Did he deserve to be fired? I don't know the answer to those questions, although I have my opinions. Here is what I do know: A sexual predator was allowed free reign at a public university. He used his position in the athletic department and his charity to at-risk boys to enable him to continue his awful crimes. He was caught on at least two occasions. But never was he arrested until last week, 12 years after his retirement. He was allowed continual access to the Penn St athletic facilities--the incident witnessed by McQueary took place three years after Sandusky's retirement. And as far as we know, nothing was ever done to help the victims in this case. So for Paterno and everyone else in this sad affair, it's a matter of the sin of omission. It wasn't what they did, it's what they didn't do. Just one person of action--an assistant coach, a president, an athletic director, the head coach himself--could have stopped this long ago, but no one did. Paterno himself seemed to understand this yesterday, as he told reporters, "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
I wonder how many of us will feel that way at the end of our lives? This Sunday, we will be exploring the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, found in Matthew 25:31-45. According to that parable, a great many people who live otherwise morally upright lives will face their own sins of omission on the Day of Judgment. It is a powerful reminder that God expects His people not to simply be religious and abstain from a few vices, but to be proactive, compassionate agents of His love. How often do we fail? How often do we fly right by the least of God's children because we are focused on other things? How often do we see pain and tragedy, but choose to do nothing? Jesus doesn't want us to be surprised at the Day of our Judgment. He wants us to be ready. This Sunday, we will talk about what we need to know.
There are so many lessons to be learned from the Penn State scandal. For me, the biggest one is this: The sin of omission is all around us. It is a part of our lifestyle, and we must deal with it. We must rouse ourselves from our self-centeredness and self-righteousness. We must stop confusing pity for compassion and charity for action. We must pray for God's eyes to see the least around us. Because right now, we all are culpable. We are Penn State.