The date was October 29, 2011—once memorable in college football history. Down 7-3 to the Illinois Fighting Illini, the Penn State Nittany Lions drove the ball 86 yards, enabling Joe Paterno (JoePa) to become the winningest football coach in Division I history.
On November 5, Jerry Sandusky was arrested for alleged (at the time) child molestation, some instances of which were reported to have happened on the Penn State campus. Three days later the Penn State board of trustees fired Joe Paterno for not adequately reporting a possible child molestation incident. Controversy immediately ensued with some questioning the wisdom of the university’s decision to oust the larger than life coach.
We now stand at end of July, 2012. Joe Paterno is dead as the result of lung cancer. Jerry Sandusky languishes in prison, having been convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexual molestation. The damning investigative report by former FBI director Louis Freeh has resulted in the de-erection of Joe Paterno’s statue, as well as massive NCAA sanctions against the Penn State football program. Finally, 111 of Joe Paterno’s football victories have been erased from the record books as though they had never existed.
In addition to being a lifelong resident of western Pennsylvania, what makes these events especially troubling for me (and many others) is all of the good that JoePa accomplished during the course of his life. This wasn’t some self-absorbed football coach determined to win regardless of the cost; Paterno set high academic standards for his players and invested millions of his own money back into the Penn State University system. He was admired by many for his integrity to the point that awards were named after the man. Whether spoken by Penn State students or national sports announcers, everything we ever heard about JoePa was good and virtuous.
It is difficult not to view the negative clamor as nothing more than a mob mentality crusade in the court of public opinion. Equally tempting is the view that the NCAA sanctions are simply a knee jerk reaction, enacted to protect their own image. After all, it wasn’t Penn State that laid out the blueprint that built Division I college football into the materialistic beast it is today. We also know that Jerry Sandusky acted alone when he committed those vile acts.
Having followed the unfolding of this distasteful affair with the interest of a Pennsylvanian, I can understand both opposing perspectives. What Sandusky did was horrible and any attempt at a cover-up should be met with clear and significant consequences. At the same time, I’m not so sure that the evidence clearly implicates Paterno.
Regardless of which perspective is more accurate, Joe Paterno’s fall from glory provides us with an unfortunate, but powerful illustration of the culpability of human sin. When Adam & Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in an attempt to be like God apart from God, they incurred a debt for the human race that could never possibly be repaid—the debt to perfection. God is perfect and all who aspire to His level are eternally damned to a never ending quest for flawlessness in any and every way.
Through that one fateful act, law was written on the human heart. Law in the form of the human conscience. Law in the form of never ending regulations utilized to govern human behavior. Law in the form of the need to always measure up to standards of perfection.
The book of James (2:10-11) tells us that if any one of us has broken one law, he or she has broken the entire law, because the standard of the law is nothing short of perfection. It doesn’t matter how much good I’ve done throughout the course of my life; if I murder a person, I stand condemned as a murderer, guilty of breaking the law of the state.
The irony of the Penn State situation does not go unnoticed. JoePa helped set a standard of integrity for the overall well-being of his players. He and his wife contributed so much to the success of Penn State as an academic institution. How can one act of neglect invalidate so much good? It just doesn’t seem right.
We protest as though such an unbending standard of law is unfair, but remember that law was our choice when the human race chose to go rogue, seeking independence from our Creator. Whether on the football field or in the court of public opinion, law never ceases to demand perfection.
Our debt to perfection has been paid because Jesus died a horrible death on a horrible cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins (Colossians 2:8-14). In fulfilling the requirements of the Old Covenant Law, Jesus ushered in the New Covenant of grace. Whether we as individuals dwell in the Happy Valley of Grace or the Unhappy Valley of Law is now a matter of personal choice.