Greg Garrett: Joe Paterno, Football, and False Gods

"Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the LORD your God."  - Leviticus 19:4, NRSV

On Thursday, July 12, an independent investigative counsel consisting of former FBI Director Louis Freeh and his associates released its findings on what Penn State knew about and how it handled Jerry Sandusky's rape of young boys on the Penn State campus. Some had hoped that those in power-especially the winningest college football coach of all time, the revered Joe Paterno-might be exonerated. Instead, Mr. Freeh's conclusions were scathing:

The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims....

Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University-President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President of Finance and Business, Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno-failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities. They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky's victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being. (14)

Media outcry over these findings has been swift and vocal. This past Sunday on "Meet The Press," Bob Costas argued that the football program at Penn State should receive the NCAA's "death penalty"-that as a result of this cover-up by Mr. Paterno and others, the much-loved football Nittany Lion football team should be shut down. On Monday, the morning hosts of CNN's "Starting Point" debated whether Joe Paterno's statue at Penn State ought to be removed, with most agreeing it was a necessary next step. The assembled women of "The View" opined that Joe Paterno's statue at Penn State in fact ought to be roughly torn down as though it were a statue of Saddam Hussein.

But sports radio actually came much closer to the spiritual truth of this issue than most of the mainstream media. On ESPN Radio, Corey Giger, a guest on Colin Cowherd's "The Herd" show, spoke of the "cult-like worship" of Joe Paterno, the saintly "Joepa," and called him a false god, which indeed, he and Penn State football were (and for many, still are).

The Hebrew Testament proscriptions against false gods often strike us these days as ridiculous and archaic. We don't worship statues or graven images, do we?

But the fact of the matter-as suggested by what has led to the controversy over the Paterno statue-is that we often chase after false gods, try to find our meaning, our community, in places where the true God is not.

And always-always-we are disappointed, or we disappoint.

Mr. Paterno seemed to be worthy of adulation, even of "reverence," a word that The Chronicle of Higher Education said characterized the widespread feeling for Joepa and Penn State football.

After all, wasn't this the same man who, in an a much-admired commencement speech, told Penn State's graduating class in 1973 that

To be in a locker room before a big game and to gather a team and to look at grown men with tears in their eyes, huddling close to each...reaching out to be part of each look into strong faces which say "If we can only do it today" be with aggressive, ambitious people who have lost themselves in something bigger than they are--this is what living is all about.

We have shared four years together, years we will never forget, and we hope this short journey has made us all a little better.

Wasn't this the same man named Sportsman of the Year by "Sports Illustrated" in 1986, of whom writer Rick Reilly said

From whom else but Paterno did we learn that you can have 20-20,000 vision and still see more clearly than almost everybody else, that you can look like Bartleby but coach like Bryant, that you can have your kids hit the holes like 'Bama's and the books like Brown's, that the words ''college'' and ''football'' don't have to be mutually exclusive.

And this much is true: Joe Paterno spoke throughout his career of winning with honor, of living a life of integrity, of the importance of education, of giving back to the institutions that you love, of hard work.

So I get it. Those who worshiped at the altar of Paterno believed they had found a place where they were called to something higher, where they in their love and allegiance joined others, just as passionate, where they themselves were somehow better and finer for their worship.

And now what they have is this, a legacy forever stained by the suggestion that Mr. Paterno was not simply duped by a trusted friend, did not even simply stand aside and let evil continue, but was complicit in a criminal cover up. The Freeh report concludes that Mr. Paterno worked actively to preserve his reputation, the reputation of his football program, and the reputation of his school by closing the door on closer investigation of Mr. Sandusky. As Bob Costas put it, "He was among those who enabled Sandusky, not only to let him get away with what he had already done, but to continue to victimize other children."

Someone on CNN asked the other day if it's fair to characterize someone based on their worst mistake; I've preached on the fact that it seems unfair to Doubting Thomas to name him for a moment of weakness. But this is different: Mr. Paterno preached one thing, and lived another, and it is for this hypocrisy that he deserves to be condemned.

Instead of the sense of justice and compassion he evinced in his Penn State commencement speech, Mr. Paterno permitted those who were weaker and less fortunate to be victimized so he could maintain his position.

Instead of his oft-repeated and much-admired statement that money was not the be-all and end-all of life, a new New York Times report shows that the dying Mr. Paterno, in the midst of the Sandusky investigation, successfully negotiated a mountainous $5.5 million contract that would preserve his wealth and privilege even as the walls crumbled around him.

Instead of winning with honor, for at least a decade, Joe Paterno walked smiling onto the gridiron while living a lie.

It's too easy to condemn child rapers, hypocrites, leaders and institutions that fail us. That's not my reason for writing.

What is even more important is to recognize that all of us-even those who think of ourselves as good people, are admired and valued by others-are in danger of pursuing false gods that will lead us to destruction, because that is our human nature. Humans are always guilty of what Augustine called "cupiditas," the love of things that seem attractive but that don't last (which is to say, everything except God).

Mr. Paterno warned his later self in that 1973 commencement speech that

One of the tragedies of Watergate is to see so many bright young men, barely over thirty, who have so quickly prostituted their honor and decency in order to get ahead, to be admired, to stay on the "team." These same young people within the short period of the last ten years sat in convocations such as this. They were ready to change the world.... I warn you-don't underestimate the world-it can corrupt quickly and completely. And heed Walter Lippman who wrote several years ago: "It is a mistake to suppose that there is satisfaction and the joy of life in a self-indulgent generation, in one interested primarily in the pursuit of private wealth and private pleasure and private success-we are very rich but we are not having a good time-for our life though it is full of things, is empty of the kind of purpose and effort that gives to life its flavor and meaning."

What Lippman wants us to realize is that money alone will not make you happy: Success without honor is an unseasoned dish, it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good.

Likewise, Anne Lamott told graduating seniors in another fine commencement speech how

I got a lot of things that society had promised would make me whole and fulfilled-all the things that the culture tells you from preschool on will quiet the throbbing anxiety inside you-stature, the respect of colleagues, maybe even a kind of low-grade fame. The culture says these things will save you, as long as you also manage to keep your weight down. But the culture lies.

Both speeches were right. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish. But even more, success without faith, success without love, success without compassion, success without justice, will be ashes in your mouth.

False gods always are.

Taken with permission from Greg's blog at

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.