COMMENTARY: “Say it Ain’t So, Joe” 748.4

“Say it ain’t so, Joe”

These words, directed at Shoeless Joe Jackson as he emerged from a courthouse where he and seven other White Sox players were accused of taking bribes to manipulate games, expressed the profound sense of betrayal and disappointment suffered when an idol falls from grace.  Though Jackson, one of the finest players of his era, claimed his innocence and was acquitted in court, he was banned from baseball and became a symbol of a disgraced hero.

Will a similar fate befall Penn State’s legendary football coach Joe Paterno?

Along with only a handful of truly great coaches, including John Wooden, Alonzo Stagg and Tom Landry, Joe Pa (as he is lovingly called at Penn State) has been a living embodiment of what is good about sports. A fierce competitor and master motivator, strategist, and teacher, Coach Paterno taught the young men who played for him and all those who watched and rooted for the Nitanny Lions how to pursue victory with honor.

His teams always have one of the highest graduation rates, he has personally given tens of millions of dollars to the university, and his example has inspired an unknowable number of coaches to take the high road.

John Feinstein, a sports columnist for the Washington Post, said, “The one thing that set Paterno apart from other coaches was that he so clearly understood that his responsibility to his players went well beyond making them better on the field.” Paterno approached his job as a parent and a teacher. “Every kid we recruit is someone’s child or grandchild,” he said. “They give us responsibility for something — someone — they treasure. It’s our responsibility to give them back a better person than when they came here.”

So, why is this 84-year-old icon running the gauntlet of criticism and condemnation? Although the facts are sparse, lots of people think he had a moral responsibility to go to the police, not merely to his superiors at the university, with information about Jerry Sandusky’s criminal behavior. What a sad confirmation of the insight that we may judge ourselves by our best and most noble actions, but we will be judged by others by our last worst act.

Eventually we will hear Coach Paterno’s story. When we do, I hope we will be more generous than judgmental. I think he’s earned that.


Since I wrote and recorded this commentary, it was announced that Coach Paterno will resign at the end of the year. It was probably a time for that in any event, but it is a pity that this incident will detract from his tremendous contributions as a genuine teacher-coach.

He said: ‎”This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” What more can he say? I believe he is deeply aggrieved and regretful. This was a mistake, not a character flaw, and in my book deserves the benefit of the doubt. He deserves to retire with honor and be ensconced in the pantheon of truly great teacher-coaches with my friend John Wooden.

Comments 34

  1. The most enormous tragedy in all of this is that NO ONE had the courage to hand a little boy a towel, tell him to get dressed and give him a safe ride home — THEN go to the police to arrest the monster who had betrayed the trust of an innocent. Instead, the graduate assistant and the custodian who observed two separate occasions ran away. Shame on them, shame on all of them who let it continue and looked the other way. They are all guilty — and I will never put Joe Pa in the company of John Wooden and the others you mention again.

    1. Kim, I agree with you 100%. Paterno has learned the most tragic lesson, we ARE our little brothers’ keepers. His moral duty was to help those children above all. He chose the wrong path and now he pays. I am sorry for him because he is at the end of his life and can’t do much to make amends to those boys and their families. Betrayed trust is the most powerful of moral errors and Paterno made his decision to go with the passive solution. He could have been a true hero.

  2. I totally agree. Coach Paterno reported the incident to officials at his university and undoubtedly thought he had done what was required and possibly what was right. Could he have done more? Absolutely! Could every trustee and other administrative personnel with knowledge of the event also done more? Of course. This man has proven decade after decade his integrity and has helped thousands of young men become better citizens. Penn State is the “one” that has shown a lack of character in this situation. Joe Paterno apologized, he said he would resign at the end of the season. He took responsibility and accepted part of the blame. Sadly, his university did not. If Paterno had been the perpetrator it would make sense to immediately dismiss him. No one else at Penn State called the police either. Their administration should have acknowledged their complicity in this unfortunate event and allowed the man to finish the season with a little bit of honor intact.

    1. We’re not talkng about a little mistake that hurt somone’s feelings, we are talking about sexual exploitation of children, with lifelong ramifications. I hardly think that offers Paterno a free ride. It was right of the University to let him go, it sends a message that no one is too big to pay the consequences of their actions. The Catholic Church would do well to follow Penn State’s model.

  3. Michael, You are waaay wrong on this one. Paterno had a MORAL obligation to those kids who were abused over a 15, for God’s sake, 15-year period by one of Paterno’s employees. We should ALL rise up in righteous indignation for those poor victims! I suppose you support the Catholic priests for their abuses also. I cannot believe a moral person like you, Michael, could take the low road on this horrific story. JJ

  4. While I do support your opinion, Michael, I have to say I think it was the best decision for everyone involved to remove him at this time. Unfortunately, we cannot read minds. There have been many who have said “I am innocent!” only to find out later they were not. I believe he will be found to be innocent or at least, as you said, having made an error in judgement, but until all the facts are investigated by the Police, it is best to remove him from any further contact with Students. I heard it said “We are a Nation of Laws”, and we have to find the truth first. What Paterno did was follow an outdated set of rules that said elevate the issue to your Superiors and let them decide. That would assume that the Superiors have the best interests of everyone in mind and not just to CYA your Institution and personnel and hope it goes away. Unfortunately in this case it appears they did just that, even lying to a Grand Jury.

  5. Have you read the grand jury indictment? Sometimes guilt motivates people to do good in order to justify or balance wrong doings…sounds like Paterno’s tragic flaw, yes, FLAW, is his extreme loyalty to his staff and PSU. Joe Paterno, archetypical tragic hero!

  6. OK< I guess I need to understand more about your opinion on this because reading this it seems like you equate serial child sexual abuse with bribery. Is it not your standpoint that one should do the right thing, even when it costs more than you want to pay?
    You seem to be saying here that the good that has come about through the years of Joe Paterno leading the team to victory over rides his inaction in reporting even the suspicion of, if that is the excuse you give him, of the sexual abuse of a ten year old boy on the club premises. Is that really what you are saying? That the life that has been forever damaged by the actions of an adult, and organization in which he should have been able to trust implicitly, is worth less than a string of football game victories?
    I may not be reading this correctly, and would love to hear from you.

  7. Joe Pa does not deserve to be “the greatest coach ever”. A great coach would have never covered up for a staff member, he would have fired him, and then made sure that that man never worked with childern again. Covering for an alleged pedofile is what someone does for their childern? I do not think so. You do not “pursue victory with honor” when you allow pedofiles to interact with youth.
    I think the lesson here no matter who you are- not doing the right thing will come back too you. Joe Paterno chose to ignore a bad sitution and have someone else handle the dirty work. And look where he is now.

  8. Your omission of Paul “Bear” Bryant from “truly great coaches” who were an
    “embodiment of what is good about sports” is troubling. Is this simply an oversight, a regional bias, or what?

    About Paterno: Maybe it is time for us genuinely acknowledge and repudiate the “Don’t snitch” and “code of silence” subcultures at all levels of our society.

    1. The last time I saw Paul Bear Bryant, he was leaning up against the wall in a men’s restroom, during a break at a coaching clinic….drunk…give me a break!!!

  9. Mr. Josephson:
    I could not agree more, I truly believe that Coach Paterno thought he was doing what was right. It is easy to say in hindsight that perhaps he should have done more but I think that in some ways he is a creature of his own generation and I think that oftentimes things of this nature were pushed into the background and perhaps in some ways even overlooked. Not because there was any consent of this type of behavior but it was not smashed in our faces by the media.
    I hope that Coach Paterno is treated fairly by the media and by all those who want to condemn him, I believe that based on his actions and honor throughout these many years that he deserves the benefit of the doubt as you have said.

    Best regards,


  10. The background details have not been given full disclousure, therefore, based on what tilted facts are being given, it sounds like, JoePa did the right thing. He told his superiors.

    The current year is 2011. The incident of the assistant coach and the young boy being caught taking a shower was back in 2002. Why hasn’t anyone asked, ” Why is this now an issue?” If there is a delay “in telling” it sounds like everyone dropped the ball.

    Somebody told JoePa, JoePa, told two other people, and what did senior management do? Apparently nothing, again back in 2002. Why is this an issue 9 years later? What was being done in the past 9 years? Didn’t somebody, somewhere else have suspicions, of inappropriate and immoral activity at the youths home shelter? Why is this all being laid on one man, JoePa?

    If, when the accused assistant was working with JoePa, and JoePa knew of something, for sure, then he should have made a report. If after the assistant retired and JoePa or someone else heard ongoing rumors, then those suspicious rumors should have been reported. Why punish someone for something that they didn’t know about.

    When JoePa was first informed, he told his superiors. I and you, who report to higher ups, know that sometimes our hands are tied. Why punish an 84 year old man, an entire team, and his legacy, for what other people did or didn’t do.

    I can only hope that in these past 9 years something was being done about that youth home and for those kids. Nine years later is late, more damage has been done. Has it been said why this is surfacing now? There are a lot of quilty people but JoePa and the student/now coach that informed JoePa are not quilty. They reported it.

  11. Love your articles. On this one though, I have to throw a flag. With Joe’s position, pay and reputation comes responsibility. This coach did great things. He was placed on a high pedestal; maybe too high. Young boys we’re allegedly raped on his watch. More young boys may have been raped after he knew things were wrong and he continued to work with the alleged rapist. Sports success or an instutuion’s success can’t be put in front of protecting our children, our weak, our vulnerable. That seems to be what happened and that, in my humble opinion, must balance our perceived thought’s of Coach JoPa’s character. Forgive him yes. Place him back on pedestal…Gene Gray

  12. Winston Churchill said it succinctly: “The price of leadership is responsibility.”
    Joe Paterno was the undisputed leader at Penn State. He did not lack the ability to deal with the alleged criminal and prevent further harm to come to other innocent victims here, but he did not exercise his responsibility as a leader – as the leader at Penn State to deal with this grave situation. He could have leveraged his leadership and prevented further harm and he did not do that.

    Unfortunately, a legacy is created by consistency of action and a congruence between what you say and what you do – the definition of integrity.

    And where do we need strong leadership and leaders more so than to protect the innocence of youth – to protect our children.

    A civil society is judged on how it deals with the fringes of the society – those that need support. How shall we judge Joe Paterno in this regard? With this barometer of leadership?

  13. I am a 55 year old man who grew up 30 miles from State College. I have been a Penn State fan and Joe Paterno admirer my whole life. I can say that from my point of view, I am disgusted by the series of events. I consider child molestation a crime equal to murder. If the student assistant had witnessed a murder and told Joe, would he have been so complacent? I doubt it. The tragedy stretches so much further than the incident. People like myself and former PSU players are left scratching their heads in bewilderment. This is not the person we know and love. How could he have not followed through? Say it ain’t so Joe! We trusted you and you never failed us. Please let there be extenuating circumstances that have not been identified. My world seems hollow these days.

  14. So a graduate assistant SAW this act. He called his father??? He didn’t call the police? Was he old enough to know that when one observes a crime the police should be called immediately? It follows that he should be retained as an assistant coach! Does this make any sense? Why should he have to report this crime up the line and wash his hands of the whole thing! What a system!

  15. Michael, with all due respect, you are way off on this one. “JoePa” didn’t abuse a child. If reports are accurate, he stood back and allowed it to happen. Think Catholic Church abuse scandal. Being a good human being at times requires bravery. JoePa could have bucked the system and let this horrible secret see the light of day. Shame, shame, JoePa, we know your name.

  16. Michael –
    You say you are all about ethics and character. Why have you make this an exception?
    You quoted Paterno as saying that:

  17. Are you serious? I’m pretty shocked that I’m reading this type of thing on a blog about character and “what will matter.” Character does not mean passing responsibility on to someone else. Paterno, along with EVERYONE who knew about this, should have called the police. Period. If he insisted on telling his supervisors first, he still could have done the right thing and called the police later, after he saw that nothing was done to hold this man accountable.

    I’m a huge college football fan, but I don’t really care what a great coach he is if he failed to stop a pedophile from sexually assaulting kids. To me, that IS a character flaw, not a mistake, and makes more a difference than thousands of expertly-coached football games.

    You lost a reader with this post, Michael. Sorry.

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  18. No excuses for any of the people that knew what was going on at Penn State!
    They were wrong and I don’t care how important they were. Football being more important than the children?? Don’t think so…..How have we gotten our priorities so mixed up?

  19. Like other commenters I found your commentary, Say It Ain’t So Joe, to be somewhat disturbing considering we are connected because of our mutual interest in character. Regardless of JoePa’s legendary coaching skills and history at Penn State, he and every other person with immediate knowledge (including the staff witnesses, beginning with the first incident observed in the locker room/shower- should have taken immediate, deliberate action to ensure Sandusky was handcuffed in police custody! Most likely a thorough investigation would have uncovered a history of predatory behavior and victims at that time and Sandusky would have gone to prison and he wouldn’t have had the chance to hurt all the rest of the kids mentioned in the Grand Jury report. JoePa and his fellow staff who made a “mistake” as you call it….have blood on their hands because they individually and collectively failed to protect the children. At least one of those “educators” should of had the good character, feelings of disgust, anger, horror and outrage to physically stop the assault in progress, pull out the cellphone to call 911….send the kid for help while restraining the pervert, or something. JUST DO THE RiGHT THING. And since that didn’t happen, we have the collective excuse where they all say they reported to their supervisor and then they all washed their hands of it. Someone; at least one of those staff members, someone with some God given smarts should have been turning over desks to ensure Sandusky could do no further harm. Call it a mistake if you want, but considering ol’ JoePa was one of those who apparently told his boss about it and decided his responsibility was over and the abuser continued to abuse more kids in HIS work area…..I tend to lean toward the character flaw description. Granted its too bad at this point in his life his remarkable career is tarnished but that reminds me of an old saying we used in my career as a state correctional officer…..”One ‘Oh Shit!’ outweighs all the ‘Atta Boys!'” This is a huge “Oh SHIT!” for JoePa and all involved who dropped the ball! SHAME, SHAME

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  20. I have listened to and read your Character Counts for many years. For all those years I have admired your work, ever since I was a student at your Bar Prep course back in the 1980’s.
    I am DUMBSTRUCK that you think Joepa’s complete lack of good moral judgment over many years (and obvious incidents) should give him a pass because of all the “good” he has done.
    Would you give a pass to Bernie Madoff for donating to charities that benefited the poor?
    It seem incongruous that you would allow this person of who showed a distinct lack of true character off the hook from his real responsibility, not to coach football, not to help them graduate, not to donate to the school, but his real responsibility in being true to his own stated principles,

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      Please read the follow-up commentary on the next day where i retract my initial position for many of the reasons you state.

  21. The FEAR these men possesed that kept them from coming forward does not out weigh the fear the young men must have felt. And their abuse of POWER not to act and sweep the matter under the carpet will haunt them the rest of their lives as it will the victims’. And losing the respect they’ve earned is a very small price to pay, but SHOULD BE PAID.

  22. Child abuse is a disgrace. What if you knew these children? Would your attitude change? This man had an obligation to report to the police….and he did not. No excuses! They all need to be fired.

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  23. I cannot in any way feel sorry for Joe. He knew this went on and yes he did do what was required of him legally. It sickens me that that was all he did. It takes a village to raise a community of caring resposible people and we all have a responsibility to do more than what is reqiured legally. All of us. I believe a mistake is an accidental occurance and we all make them but this was an intentional turning away from a responsibility, a deliberate choice, and this is what is so absolutely disgusting about these men and their protection of each other…I am heartbroken about what these children have had to endure, how they were preyed upon and men allowed it to continue. The College needs to clean house and we all need to reflect inwards on how we ourselves may be turning a blind eye where we should be visionaries in our own villages.

  24. I just saw a link at the bottom of this page with a quite that really seems to fit this situation…
    “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”- Edmund Burke.

    JoepJoepa may have done what was required, but what about what was right? Those boys will live with joepa’s “mistake” for the rest of their lives.

  25. It doesn’t take a great man (or woman) to know that this was very wrong. Nor does it take a great man ( or woman) to know that obviously nothing was done after he reported it. This is not a mistake. This is “look the other way” because it is uncomfortable and may bring shame to my program, and that makes all the difference in the world.

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