Charlie Leonard: A cowardly act in the face of evil
November 16, 2011
Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
At this point, we really do not know for sure if Coach Joe Paterno is or ever truly was a good man.
We know he was a successful and enduring football coach.
Yet news reports also say that when he was confronted with evil he fundamentally did nothing.
After years of silence, he now acknowledges that an eyewitness told him that his friend and assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was seen sexually assaulting a small boy in the men’s locker room.
According to news accounts, he reported the matter to his athletic director. If he believed what he was told about Sandusky, however, we would have also known there was a child who still needed help and protection as well as a heinous criminal who needed to be stopped – and yet he took no further action.
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Last week, upon hearing that the administration of Penn State fired Paterno, hundreds of students rioted in protest. They apparently believed Paterno had no responsibility to try and protect this child or that his distinguished coaching career should have automatically pardoned his role in the scandal.
What sinister forces so corrupted Paterno that he did nothing to stop this evil monster? What educational and cultural failings caused Penn State students to react with such violence and contempt for Paterno’s ridiculously lenient punishment?
Was Paterno trying to avoid embarrassment for Penn State and his football program? Do the students genuinely think Paterno, personally, did nothing wrong?
I don’t have the answers to these questions but we need them.
We need to know if college sports is so corrupt that otherwise honorable people will say or do anything to avoid being accountable to the institutions and communities they are supposed to serve.
We need to know if our modern culture has “defined deviance downward,” as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said about the country’s apparent indifference to certain types of deviant behavior.
We need to know what genuinely motivated the hundreds of students at Penn State who rioted in response to Coach Paterno’s firing. Does Penn State have an underage drinking problem or a generational failure to understand some basic principles of morality?
Either way we have a problem. But I guess I’m hoping most of the students woke up with a bad hangover and a terrible case of remorse, rather than truly believing the coach is some kind of a victim in this sordid affair.
As for the coach, I personally think he is a good man who failed to believe that his friend and colleague could do something so repulsive. I think he acknowledged there was something inappropriate, but nothing as graphic as what he had been told.
But here is reality: Evil does exist, we need to be aware of it, and every one of us, as members of humanity, has a responsibility to do something about it.
So, despite our inclinations to move on from uncomfortable stories like this, I think we need to keep this one alive until we understand more about what actually happened and why a number of actors behaved the way they did.
I also think this is one of those moments when all “good people,” as Burke so aptly put it, need to do something. That something for most of us can be as simple as a conversation with your family, your friends and your colleagues at work about the atrocious nature of these crimes and why each of us has a moral responsibility to prevent “the triumph of evil.”
As for anyone at Penn State who still thinks Coach Paterno should not have been fired, I have a different idea:
Penn State University is less than 100 miles from Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. I suggest that before they graduate, every single Penn State student who engaged in the riots following Paterno’s firing make the trip to Shanksville and stand on the site where a handful of fearless Americans on a hijacked airliner saw evil and confronted it with their lives.
Maybe Paterno could even go along for the ride with some of them and explain exactly what he meant when he said, “I wish I had done more.”
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