The Injustice Done to Joe Paterno
One of America’s greatest moral teachers for three generations gets a raw deal.

Joe Paterno, 1926‒2012


Many in the national press, in commenting on JoePa’s sterling record, have echoed the board in speaking of his “moral failure” and his “tainted” legacy. If the issue is moral weakness, who among them feels morally superior enough to judge the failures of JoePa? At the very least, the man should have been given an open hearing. At the very least, those who stand in moral judgment should try to ascertain what alternatives were open to Joe, and what would have happened if he had pursued A, B, or C.

Once the Sandusky case became public in March 2011, what did the media do? What did the board of The Second Mile do? What did the Penn State board do? You bet: woulda, coulda, shoulda. And you can bet that JoePa himself, like any mortal man, was tormenting himself about those very conditionals.

Who, looking at Mr. Sandusky — a leading public figure in the town of State College, a philanthropist — imagined what he was doing? Who had the wit to stop his actions abruptly on first rumor? Who, on suspicion, investigated, investigated thoroughly? Who sought out the victims, and warned parents in the vicinity? And by what fair process should JoePa be singled out as the one who “morally failed”? As the scapegoat?

“Judge not, lest ye be judged,” was, I thought, a primary commandment for all mere mortals. There are strict criteria for judging legal fault. Judging moral fault depends on a vaster, deeper knowledge about another than any of us has. We should commend one another to God’s judgment and ask for mercy for ourselves.

The trustees of Penn State could not have known that on the very day they abruptly issued their verdict (within hours of opening their meeting), JoePa was receiving a deadly medical diagnosis of active cancer.

Put yourself in JoePa’s shoes. How cruel this dual fate must have seemed to him. From God, he might have received the cancer diagnosis with equanimity. But from the university he had served so well, for so long, with so much honor and distinction, how shattered and betrayed he must have felt.

There are not many coaches in America who read Virgil in Latin (and used to teach it), and who understand more deeply the ethical traditions of the West, both secular and religious, and who have proven so adept at teaching these codes to raw young football players, changing them for life and winning their undying loyalty. Ask Franco Harris. Ask hundreds of others.

His players band together these days and say publicly that the Paterno moral legacy will live as long as they do. What is the Penn State way? Never quit, take on the task assigned, spend myself utterly, play as one team, don’t worry about what others think, stay true. This is what they have been taught that Penn State is. What they are. What the tradition of the West is, from Thermopylae and Troy until today.

Give this great moral leader fair play. Give him elementary fairness. We owe ourselves no less. We owe every citizen no less. We owe JoePa no less. We owe ourselves no less.

[Full disclosure: My brother Ben Novak was on the board of trustees of Penn State from 1988 to 2000, and in the wake of recent events has announced that he will run again this year for one of the open slots on the board. One plank of his platform is to restore honor to the Paternos. But I do not need my brother, eminent as he is, to tell me how to think about JoePa and Penn State and college football. To check out Ben’s views, go to]

— Michael Novak is the author of The Joy of Sports, which was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the 100 best sports books of the 20th century. His website is


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