Posted by: Jack Brown | January 23, 2012

How Do We Remember Joe Pa?

Earlier today I read an editorial from a local sportswriter who made this declaration: “In my book, [Joe Paterno] always will be remembered for the child sexual abuse scandal and nothing more.” The question that came to my mind, after first uttering a few choice words in anger at his failed attempt to make this a “black or white, all or nothing” issue, was this: how should we remember a man who positively impacted countless young lives, yet failed to protect other young men at a time when they were most vulnerable and exposed to pure evil? And as I sat with that question an even larger one formed in my mind: what defines us and our legacy in this world? That’s a big question, but an important one.

Another sports commentator I listen to attacked that question from a different angle today regarding Paterno–he kept asking, “When all is said and done, does the good outweigh the bad or does the bad outweigh the good?” His attempt to work through the issues was somewhat more nuanced than our local personality, but in my mind it still missed the point. As if we could somehow quantify the whole of the man’s life and assign points in the “good” and “bad” columns, then add them all up and see what the final tally is. How do we begin to do that? How much is it worth, for example, the number of times Joe Paterno encouraged a young man who was failing to live up to his potential, or steered a player into a greater determination to make the most of every academic opportunity and expand his understanding of life beyond the gridiron? How many points do those get in the “good column,” and then how many “bad” points do we give for his various failings and shortcomings? And the biggest question–how many does he get for failing to act on behalf of the innocent victims who continued to suffer because he and the PSU administration did nothing about Jerry Sandusky?

I, for one, am not willing to even attempt such a grading task. Yes, without a doubt, what happened in the Sandusky situation was far more heinous, far more destructive, and far more painful that we can possibly imagine. And no amount of good Paterno ever did could “balance out” what happened to those kids. But it is also true that what Paterno did, or failed to do, in that situation does not automatically cancel out all the good he did in young lives and for his university community through the decades. To say the man deserves no credit or respect for that is to say that the only thing that defined him as a person was his role in the sexual abuse scandal. It was a huge thing, to be sure, but it certainly did not define him.

I suppose my thinking on this is shaped by my belief that defining a human being can never be as simple as a math equation. I am not the total of the “good things” I’ve done in my life minus the “bad things.” I am both. I am both the things I’ve done right and the things I’ve done wrong. I am both the things I’ve done for selfless reasons and selfish ones. I am both the remorse I feel for my mistakes and the pride I feel for my accomplishments. You cannot separate the two, not for me or not for Joe Paterno. And on top of that, whenever we bring this reality to bear on another person we need to remember that we have no insight into their heart. Who knows the remorse and grief he felt for what happened? Some are saying it killed him, and whether or not that’s true what is true is that you and I have no window into the man’s soul. And surely that must be taken into account when “defining” someone.

So how do we remember Joe Pa? I will choose to remember him as I hope I will be remembered: as someone who desired to do good, but didn’t always live up to that standard. As a failed and flawed mortal who cannot be defined merely by success or failure, but as an amalgam of both in varying degrees. In doing so we acknowledge that many lives were positively impacted by the man’s actions, just as many were harmed by his inactions. And ultimately I will choose to remember that what I believe or say about him pales in comparison to the grace and mercy of God, which should be the final word anyway.



  1. Very well written, Jack. The depth of thought that you put into this is very revealing about the type of person you are. We all need to offer more grace sometimes when it comes to such matters of judgment. As you, I am also glad the task of determining the goodness of someone’s life does not fall on me. We all have things of which we are ashamed of doing. Fortunately for most of us our misdeeds are not spread over the news. Thank you for putting this in perspective for me, as I was also questioning how I felt about all that Joe Paterno has done both “good” and “bad”.

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