Learning from Joe Paterno, Part 2

This Penn State story isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, though it seems inconceivable, it looks like it will get worse before it gets better. On Tuesday, I wrote a post geared toward parents that focused on the lessons we should learn from this story, and specifically Joe Paterno’s involvement in it, in order to prevent something like that from happening in our families and churches. Today I want to address some of the lessons that young people can take away this situation.

In youth group, we are in the middle of a series on 1 Timothy 4:12. This past Sunday we looked at setting an example in conduct (i.e., with our actions and behavior). As I watched the fate of Joe Paterno and other administrators at Penn State unfold on CNN and ESPN last night, I couldn’t help but connect the situation to what we talked about on Sunday night. Some of these lessons will reinforce what we talked about. Some will be new ones that we didn’t discuss. But all of them are important for us to keep in mind. To set an example in conduct, you need to:

1. Remember that your actions have consequences.

For a moment yesterday morning, it looked like Joe Paterno might save his job as he released a statement saying he would retire at the end of the season and tried to strong-arm the Board of Trustees into letting him play out the stretch. His attempt failed, however, and later in the day, he was fired from his position as head coach of the Penn State football team. He joined Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier (fired yesterday along with Paterno), and athletic director, Tim Curley (resigned several days ago), as those who have lost their jobs over this incident. Many expect that assistant coach Mike McQueary, who reported Jerry Sandusky to Paterno in 2002, will be the next to go (even if for now it appears that his job is safe).

In addition to jobs being lost, reputations have been ruined, most notably Joe Paterno’s. Prior to this weekend, the biggest strike against Paterno’s character was that he didn’t know when to retire and insisted on hanging on long after it was time to turn the reins over to someone younger. Now, no one will talk about him without references to Jerry Sandusky’s victims and the ugly end to his tenure at Penn State. As Sports Illustrated columnist, Andy Staples put it:

Joe Paterno’s legacy will include wins, a commitment to education, astounding generosity and the excellent leadership of thousands of young men. Unfortunately, it also will include those victims. They are forever intertwined.

While the names of Spanier, Curley, and McQueary are less notable than that of Paterno, they too will forever carry the burden of their association with Sandusky and the scandal that ensued in Happy Valley, PA.

And of course there are the invisible consequences that each of these men face: guilt, regret, the knowledge that children were harmed due to decisions they made. Even if they manage to somewhat redeem themselves in the public eye, the pain they experience in private may never go away.

2. Remember that your actions impact the people around you.

It’s important to remember while we (correctly) condemn Paterno, Spanier, and everyone else associated with Penn State’s cover-up that the real villain here is Jerry Sandusky. He is the one who actually committed some of the most heinous crimes a person can commit. Everyone else involved is collateral damage. They were swept up in his trail of sin and deception, albeit by their own choice. Sandusky not only irreparably harmed his victims, but also managed to cause the downfall of a college football icon and tarnish the name of one of America’s most revered institutions of higher education.

Similarly, the actions of those in authority at Penn State also had consequences that reached far beyond the small circle of conspirators. The number of children who were harmed after Penn State knew about Sandusky’s behavior is just beginning to be revealed. We may never know exactly how many children lost their innocence as a consequence of Penn State’s refusal to intervene.

3. Remember to do the right thing, not just avoid doing the wrong thing.

New York Giants RT Kareem McKenzie, who played for Paterno at Penn State, summarized what a lot of people were thinking when he responded to a question about whether Paterno should by fired by saying, “As far as I know he’s done nothing.” For some, the fact that Paterno did not do anything wrong is an excuse. But in reality, that is precisely the problem. Paterno had plenty of opportunities to do what was right, and he failed to do so each time. You see, when it comes down to it, we are not judged solely based on the wrong that we do, but also on the right that we fail to do. We see this in Scripture when it says in James 4:17:

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

Similarly, in Romans 7:19, Paul writes:

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

We often focus on the second half of that verse, the part about doing the evil that he doesn’t want to do. But there are two components to sin, not just one. Paul not only struggled with doing the wrong thing, but also with doing the right thing: “I do not do the good.” Setting an example with our conduct necessitates that we not only avoid sin but also practice righteousness.

4. Remember that your actions are being watched by others.

This point has less to do with Joe Paterno (though I think you can make this point using him) and more to do with the students who rioted last night in support of him. Penn State has looked really bad this week. Covering up sexual crimes against children will do that. Last night was the university’s opportunity to redeem itself a little, and the students who chose to pour into the streets, chanting support for Paterno, and overturning news trucks and lamp posts blew it. They may have been the minority of all students on campus, but they were the ones being seen by the public. The students being interviewed for TV came off looking particularly bad. One reporter on the scene had a little fun with it by tweeting:

Kids. Please don’t drink and approach people with microphones. YouTube is forever.

It’s funny, but it’s true. The country watched last night as Penn State students rallied and rioted for someone who participated in the cover-up of a horrendous crime. It’s hard to think it possible, but they actually managed to besmirch the name of Penn State University even more than it already had been.

Whatever you are doing and wherever you are doing it, there is always someone watching. There is always someone observing your behavior or your response to a situation or your attitude, and you will be judged based on what they see. Even those things you do in private are observed at the very least by God, and whether you believe it or not, they also bleed through to your public life for others to see. Live as though others are watching … because they are.

5. Remember that your actions define who you are.

There’s an old movie (from 1994, so maybe some people wouldn’t call that old) starring Danny DeVito called Renaissance Man. It tells the story of an advertizing executive who loses his job and ends up working for the U.S. Army, tutoring soldiers who have been classified as being, well, “less intelligent” than the Army desired. He ends up teaching them Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and they all prove themselves to be more capable than everyone believed. It’s a good movie (if a little cheesy and Hollwood-ish) that I’ve always enjoyed, but there is one line in particular that always stood out to me. When one of the soldiers is discovered to be a fugitive hiding out in the Army under a false name, DeVito’s character tells the rest of the group, who are distraught at his arrest: “The choices we make dictate the life we lead.”

It’s one of those classic, poignant movie moments, but in reality, it is true. The choices we make, the things we decide to do or not to do, ultimately define who we are. Our reputations are based on the actions (or inactions) that people see. Our future decisions are often based on previous ones. Our options are limited by the consequences of previous choices. Our character is shaped by the dozens of decisions and choices (especially the moral ones) we face everyday.

Just look at those who have become entangled in the Penn State scandal. Whether rightly or wrongly, they are being defined by how they handled this situation. One choice made a decade ago forced them to continue making bad decisions over the years in order to conceal the first one. The conspiracy not only dictated how they behaved; it also came to define who they were.

Now, for those of us who are Christians, this takes on even greater significance because of what (or, more accurately, Who) is supposed to define us. On Sunday we looked at 1 John 2:6, which says:

whoever says he abides in him [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

If we call ourselves Christians, our lives should imitate Jesus’ life. Our actions therefore need to be Christ-like. They should tell those watching us that we are his. We should be defined by him acting through us.

So how do we do that? It’s not easy for us as humans to make those selfless decisions and act in a way that benefits others before ourselves. Even to the bitter end, Joe Paterno was thinking about himself. He wanted to finish coaching the rest of the season, even if it harmed Penn State. He stood on his front porch smiling and waving at students chanting his name in the hours after he had been fired, even while saying to “pray for the victims.” Even his participation in the cover-up was probably driven by a sense of self-preservation. His motivation was always and only self.

I think it becomes easier for us to live like Christ, to make those selfless decisions on a continual basis, by looking back at what Jesus did for us on the cross (1 Peter 1:14-19) and forward to that day when we’ll see him face-to-face (2 Peter 3:11-13). The more we focus on his sacrifice, the less we focus on ourselves. The more eagerly we await his return and the true, eternal rewards, the less we care about earning temporary, earthly ones.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

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