Moral Obligations and Joe Paterno


Much will be said in the coming days and week about the scandal exploding at Penn State.  Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator from the program, is being charged with sexually assaulting multiple children over a span of time while in employment at the university.  Many witnesses and victims have come forth to testify against Sandusky.  Among them is a former graduate assistant who claims he witnessed Sandusky rape a young boy in the football team’s showers in 2002.  This graduate assistant immediately brought it to the attention of the head football coach, Joe Paterno.  Paterno notified the athletic director and the vice president of the university and that was that.

There was apparently no follow up, no confrontation, no call to the police, and not even an investigation into the identity of the boy and Sandusky was able to retire from the university with position and prestige.

As more and more details have surfaced about the horrendous actions that Sandusky allegedly committed, outrage over Paterno’s inaction has led him to announce Wednesday that he will retire from his position as head coach at the end of the football season. Update: As of Wednesday night, Joe Paterno has been fired by the board of trustees from his position as head coach.  Thousands of Penn State students rioted in response to Paterno’s termination.


Joe Paterno (84) is known as one of the greatest living legends of college football.  He has coached as Penn State’s head coach for 46 years and owns more wins than any other major college football coach in history.

All of this has been tarnished in just over the course of a weekend.

While Paterno committed no outright heinous act, people have accused him of failing to fulfill a moral obligation.  A coach should above all protect people, not just his football program.

I find this extremely intriguing.  Most sports scandals involve an act of commission: adultery, cheating, steroids, brawls, drugs, play-for-pay, or domestic violence.  They committed an act to get in hot water.

You do not see many scandals where the person is accused because of doing nothing wrong.  But that is precisely the problem; Paterno should have done something.

Paterno preached, “Do the right thing” to his players and yet he did nothing.


Every time there is public outrage over a scandal I am reminded that even in the midst of our postmodern, relativistic, your-truth-is-your-truth-and-my-truth-is-my-truth society, we still have a moral standard and this standard is written on every human heart by God through the conscience (Romans 2:15-16).

People were disgusted with Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs.  Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring and animal brutality caused even my loveable little sister to call for his head on a platter.  Coach Jim Tressel’s cover up at Ohio State and the University of Miami’s problems with amoral boosters have put a huge blight on college football.

You can quibble about the gray areas all you want but at the end of the day, right is right and wrong is wrong.  There is absolute good and there is absolute evil.  Ask any victim of sexual assault.

This includes even the things we fail to do.  James 4:17 says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  Theologians identify such inaction as a sin of omission.


When you fail to include the whole truth in a story because it could alter someone’s perception of you; when you know your wife needs help around the house but you decide to play video games or watch TV; when you know someone really needs a strong rebuke in love but you flounder in small talk; when you know someone weaker is being abused and subjected to a powerful monster but you shove it under the rug hoping it will work out on its own, it is sin.

I think it is so easy to lower our standards when it comes to sins of omission.  We justify, make excuses, or shift blame.  We think no one will notice or get hurt because we haven’t done anything wrong.  But that is precisely the problem; we should have done something.


Jesus was the opposite.  Instead of justification, excuses, and selfishness, His heart was full of compassion.

Continually in the Gospels, it states that Jesus had compassion for the lost and the broken.  This compassion was a deep pity, a true sorrow over their condition.  But it did not stop at emotion, Jesus’ compassion always moved Him to action.

When Jesus saw the poor, the broken, and the diseased following Him, “He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” and in response he sent his disciples to them to proclaim the Gospel (Matthew 9:36).

When four thousand men followed Jesus out to the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.  And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (Matthew 15:32).

It was compassion that moved the Good Samaritan to forgo race, religion, and prejudice to bandage the wounded traveler (Luke 10:33).

It was compassion that caused the father of the Prodigal Son to throw off social restraint and dignity and run to embrace his slop-covered, wayward son (Luke 15:20).

It is compassion that causes the Lord to forgive all the junk in our lives if we come to Him (Lamentations 3:32; Micah 7:19; Zechariah 10:6; Romans 9:15).

Do we feel anything when we see a need?

Let us remember the heart of Christ, the essence of the Gospel—in the little things and in the big things—and do the good we know we are called to do as followers of Him.


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