Put away the White Wash: A Lesson from the Ongoing PSU Scandal

Things have settled enough, I think, to say something about the scandal that’s been pouring out of Penn State the last few weeks.  The alleged crimes of former football coach Jerry Sandusky that are coming to light are truly awful — sickening, really.  Not far behind has been the silence of those who could have cut off the atrocities long ago.  No one disagrees; these are terrible facts rising to the surface from all parties.

As is common whenever horrific and particularly shameful incidents tarnish a community, Penn State, in the immediate aftermath, is attempting to distance itself from Joe Paterno, its iconic head football coach.  (I use “iconic” in the strongest sense, for JoePa is revered even by Nittany Lions who couldn’t care less for football.)  Not only has Paterno been the longest tenured head coach in college football’s premier division (he’s been at PSU since 1950 and head coach since ’66), but he has won more games (409) than any other head coach in history.  Nevertheless, the university has rightly fired JoePa for his silence on this issue.

By all accounts, the Penn State trustees’ hands were tied.  Paterno had to go.

Beyond this, however, there resides in Happy Valley an uneasy tension.  Just how far should the university community remove itself from this man, who virtually built the town single-handedly?  At least one writer is wondering aloud whether the university should purchase whitewash in bulk.

As bitter these days are for Penn Staters, it would be unwise to so quickly attempt to expunge their history of Paterno’s presence.  As detrimental as it would be to overlook the current scandal within the community, it would do an equal disservice to forget the highlights of JoePa’s legacy.

There is no perfect hero.  The sooner we recognize the fact, the better equipped we’ll be to respond well to the inevitable disappointment.  Hide this from ourselves, and we’re more likely to cover over wrongs and operate in denial.

From a biblical perspective (yep, I went there), David is among the most revered characters in the Jews’ long history.  He is consistently remembered glowingly as the high water mark in the age of kingship in Judah and Israel. Moreover, his name becomes synonymous with all messianic hopes as they develop over the centuries.  Abraham, Moses, and David rise above Jewish biblical history like three proud and sturdy peaks over the plains of Israel’s story.

And yet, David’s own story, as recorded in 1 & 2 Samuel, is an inseparable mixture, both sweet and sour.  Indeed, it is commonplace among commentators that David’s life from 2 Samuel 11 (the Bathsheba affair) is an unmitigated disaster.  With hardly a merciful bump along the way, David proceeds straight downwards toward his death following the conspiracy with Bathsheba and against Uriah.  His family disintegrates, his hold on the throne is threatened by on of his own children, and he ultimately dies weak and dispassionate.

Nevertheless, the biblical authors saw fit to record and preserve both halves of David’s life.  The truth, both pretty and unpleasant, is of the highest value.  Indeed, both sides of every human being ought to be preserved.  For the Penn State community, though it will take time, healing will come in its fullest forms when they can review Joe Paterno the man in all his strengths as well as his flaws.  Both sides can and must live side by side.


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