Penn State and Church…
I have been reluctant to write or speak any of my thoughts on the Penn State controversy. This is mostly because there has been no shortage of voices out there to listen to, even as it relates to church and spirituality. But more and more I’ve felt a message or lesson bubbling to the surface that I thought I would jot down here.
Penn State and other big football programs were all part of a grand experiment: to bring money into a university through and entertaining athletic program that would enhance all aspects of the university. Guys like Paterno and Bowden were all major parts of this grand experiment. But Joe was one of the first trumpeters of this system of athletics that would enhance education. He was dedicated to it and believed in it deeply. Likewise, he built a staff of coaches that he embedded this belief into who would follow his lead anywhere.
From wikipedia: “Paterno coached five undefeated teams that won major bowl games and, in 2007, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach. In all, he led the Lions to 37 bowl appearances with 24 wins while turning down offers to coach NFL teams, including the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots.” His experiment was being realized every year.
But, there were flaws. Just as with any organization or idea that comes with people, there are problems. One of those problems, as it turned out, was sin. Jerry Sandusky, 30-year assistant coach and major player in the Paterno experiment, was found to be sexually assaulting children.
Paterno was faced with a decision: report him or hide it. On the one hand, this was a valued member of the coaching team for thirty years and it would be a huge blow to morale, credibility and recruitment. On the other, it was undoubtably the right thing to do.
In the end, we know what decision JoePa made. He was more committed to his experiment than he was to justice and was part of a conspiracy to hide facts and dissuade others who didn’t share his convictions for Penn State football.
Now, I am going to suggest something that I don’t know if anyone else has yet. Again, it is coming from a person largely unfamiliar with Penn State football and a fairly average college football fan, but here it is:
I think JoePa made the decision he did because he was beginning to feel his experiment slip through his fingers.
2001 was a rough time in Penn State football. It would be the second season in a row that the didn’t make it to a bowl game, he consistently hinted he had hopes of retiring, and it was becoming clearer that the experiment of athletics subsidizing schools was beginning to prove untrue. Tuition was still rising and and many athletic departments across the nation were, in fact, losing their schools money. People were questioning the experiment that Joe and Sandusky had dedicated their lives to.
And then, this. It was the second time someone had reported that Sandusky was having sexual relations with children. As he was seeing his experiment fail, so too was a major player in the experiment.
So, he covered it up. He did his minimal duty which was to report it to school officials– all of whom were as committed to the experiment as well. Joe had fulfilled his duty in reporting it to others that he knew were going to be as silent as he was.
What does this have to do with church?
I spend a lot of time with guys who cast big dreams and big visions, in short, big experiments. They want to change the city, try this ministry, do this work and build this church.
They are guys with great charisma and ability. They are even guys who, over the course of years, deliver on their promises and seem to be doing everything right. They gather a staff around them that are either in love with the vision or in love with the leader. And for a long time they move mountains together.
But eventually something happens. Just like in any organization made up of people, there is a mistake. Someone slips. Someone sins. And as leaders there is a choice to be made. Report or cover-up?
Often times, leaders create cones of silence around themselves where they can admit to sin without accountability. They become surrounded by people who are all of like mind, thinking as one, “We can’t let this get out or it will hurt the experiment/vision/church.”
I think a pastor’s correct response was also the correct response we would have wanted from JoePa:
“No program is so important, no vision is too great, no hopes are too noble to supersede what is right and what is just. No person is too great to be held accountable for their actions, not matter who they are or what they have contributed to lofty goal. While we could keep this under wraps and say ‘the end justifies the means’ we realize that would ultimately be sending the message that football/church is more important than children, more important than justice and more important than honesty…”
I was listening to the radio the other day. Detroit has a sports station, 97.1 The Ticket. They were talking about Penn State and the aftermath of all of this. A caller really wrapped it up for me. She retold a story about walking through a grocery store and seeing someone wearing a Penn State t-shirt and had a physical, almost sick reaction.
If you work for a church you have to know this is the reaction the world has toward Christians when this sort of thing happens in a church. I talk to people all the time who feel this way.
I don’t know what would have happened if Paterno had recieved this information in 1977, during their 13-bowl-game streak–in their hay day. I like to think that he would have made the right call, but who knows?
The point is, you have to do the right thing whether times are good or bad. Someone once said, “character is who you are in the dark,” and I believe that. Something like this can’t go on whether in good times or bad. Light times or dark.
I pray that my friends who are starting congregations across the country show themselves to be men of character when (not if) their congregations are faced with these tough decisions.
I pray hardest for myself.