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Success, Honor, and the Legacy of Joe Paterno


Nov 16 2011
Why the world should never forget the football coach after the sex abuse scandal at Penn State.

"Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good." Joe Paterno

I've spent a good deal of my life trying to make sense of child sexual abuse. In 1978, 26 sets of boys' bones were exhumed from serial killer John Wayne Gacy's crawl space. Three other bodies were found elsewhere on his Chicago property. I have been haunted ever since by the reality that a sick, dangerous man did unthinkable things to boys while I played hopscotch on my driveway just minutes away.

A couple of years after Gacy was found out, clergy abuse in the Catholic Church surfaced. Although I, nor anyone I knew in our local church and school where I grew up, experienced sexual abuse by the priests in our parish, evil seemed to strike dangerously close to home again. Was there nowhere a child could be safe?

Last week when the Penn State scandal broke and the Grand Jury report released graphic details of Jerry Sandusky's alleged rape of a young boy and other incidents of abuse, memories of Gacy I'd fought to suppress reemerged. And learning about the cover-up by college officials reminded me anew of the double-injury inflicted when our trusted institutions fail in their duty to report allegations of child sexual abuse.

Paterno's unseasoned dish

When Penn State's legendary (now former) head football coach Joe Paterno set out to conduct what has become known as his "grand experiment"—dubbed "Success with Honor"— his goal was to challenge his players to success both on the field and in the classroom. The program became the hallmark of Penn State's football program, as well as its entire athletics department: "Success with Honor is a daily, active goal, not an end result, and achieving that goal is defined not solely by how much you win, but moreover how you win."

If success is measured by Paterno's original rubric, his experiment was a grand success. In 2010, the Nittany Lions posted an 89 percent graduation rate, the highest of any team ranked in the final AP Top 25. Additionally, Paterno led his Lions through 46 seasons, most of which were winning ones. Until last week's game against Nebraska, Penn State was on track for an undefeated season in 2011. This is the stuff legacies are made of.

But today Paterno knows better than anyone how bad success without honor tastes. For all of his wins on the field and good performances in the classroom with his student-players, the one grand experiment that mattered most—his own ability to live up to success with honor—has failed.

Related Topics:Abuse; Sports

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