Joe Paterno was the Methuselah of college football coaches, still running the program at age 85 when Penn State fired him last November for failing to show sufficient leadership in a sexual child abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach.
So it seems appropriate, when analyzing the crimes and punishment of Penn State from a Christian worldview, to go to the “oldest” book of the Bible, to the kickoff whistle of Genesis.
Members of both secular and non-secular society wonder, “How could this happen?” How could Paterno, revered in college football circles as the patron saint of integrity, turn a blind eye to the sinful actions of Jerry Sandusky, his longtime assistant who was convicted of sexually assaulting children during a span of at least three decades?
Some say it was all about winning, that the legendary JoePa would risk nothing that might imperil the success of his program. Such reasoning has merit, but change one letter and you land on the deeper truth: sins, not wins drove PSU to its downfall.
To paraphrase Genesis: Life was perfect, but not perfect enough for Adam and Eve, who made a most unfortunate power grab. Many millennia later, their “I’m in charge” mentality remains on display in college sports, where coaches protect their programs from negative publicity at all costs, even if it means concealing information that might have prevented the further sexual abuse of children.
Shameful, yes. Shocking, no. Sin breeds sinners. That may sound too simplistic, but often the simple explanation best cuts through the cacophony of accusations that accompany such tragedies.
Why does a man open fire in a Colorado movie theater? Sin.
Why does a football coach who touts “winning with integrity” ultimately lose with dishonor? Sin.
David wrote in the Psalms, “There is none who does good; not even one.” He should know. Even the “head coach” of Israel allowed absolute power to corrupt him absolutely by sending Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, out to the front lines of battle and certain death.
David’s punishment from God was severe; the death of a child and betrayal and bloodshed in his household for years to come. And these reprimands came upon a man said to a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13).
What of Penn State’s punishment? Was it fair? Was it right?
Most of the public frustration and anger coming from the NCAA’s hammering of Penn State -- a $60 million fine, four-year bowl ban, huge loss of scholarships and vacating of all wins from 1998 to 2011 -- can be attributed to our interpretation of injustice. Critics argue the penalties are too severe because they punish the innocent, that the current Penn State football players had nothing to do with the cover-up involving Paterno and several other school administrators, including former PSU president Graham Spanier.
But the innocent have suffered mightily through the years in the hands of an even tougher but still loving judge than the NCAA. God punishes to the next three and four generations (Exodus 20:5).
It is unfortunate that today’s Nittany Lions players will pay a steep price for others’ mistakes, but the NCAA cares more about addressing sins of the heart – cultural defects such as greed, misplaced priorities and hero worship of coaches that plague many high-profile football programs -- than concerning itself with individual consequences of the punishment.
Is that not how God often operates, by loading up on the lesson regardless of the personal fallout?
Now, it also is true that the NCAA too often thinks it is God, when in fact it only is the governing and policing arm of college athletics. But in this case the organization is correct to consider the totality of the threat to amateur sports, which cannot afford for its coaches and college presidents to cover up crimes. The severity of the punishment was meant to send a message that to whom much is given, much is expected.
Of course, God also cares deeply about individuals – each of us is like a child on his knee – but he considers our sense of justice as a 10-cent juggling act in which we fail to focus on all things at once. We see a senior quarterback whose final season sits in ruin, but God is not so perplexed. He sees how the ruin will work to the quarterback’s good.
The secular world cannot stomach this example of God’s sovereign foresight, instead calling it unfairness cloaked in selfishness and lack of sympathy. Honestly, the nonsecular camp is not always so enthused by God’s “trust-me-because-I-know-more-than-you” attitude, either.
Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis. We wince at the senseless collateral damage – newborns were guilty and deserved to die? -- chalking it up to some kind of morbid heavenly mystery.
We know we would not do it that way, but, well, God calls the shots.
And we ask ourselves, what about Jesus? What would he do?
Yes, what would he do?
This much we know: Christ showed compassion and forgiveness while also delivering a spiritual gut check. Nowhere is this double-edged equation more evident than in the dusty streets of Jerusalem, where an adulterous woman stood unharmed, having escaped when Jesus shamed the scribes and Pharisees who were ready to stone her.
“Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus said to the woman. “Now go and sin no more.”
That is the best way to handle Penn State. To balance grace with the command to pursue righteousness. To mix Old Testament brimstone with New Testament mercy.
From a Christian perspective, did the NCAA get the mix of Godly principles perfect? It punished both the guilty and innocent but also withheld its wrath by not issuing the dreaded death penalty, which would have wiped out the football program for multiple years, erasing athletes’ hopes and dreams in the process. A four-year death penalty reportedly was on the table, but was withdrawn when PSU officials accepted the NCAA’s initial list of demands. If nothing else, Penn State football players still get to play the game they love.
A case can be made that Penn State got what it deserved and also deserved much worse. An argument can be made that the punishment was unjust and also too severe. The Bible shows all sides to be correct.
But forget about Penn State for a minute and examine the NCAA’s own internal issues, which include making millions off athletes who are not being paid. Because at the end of the day God saved the hottest blast of his anger for the Pharisees, those hypocrites who condemned without having their own house in order.
The NCAA has judged the crimes and handed out the punishment, mostly with restorative purposes in mind. But now might be a good time for it to make sure the hands holding the next casting stone are clean.
Robert Wayne is a ReligionToday.com contributing writer.
Publication date: July 26, 2012