Why My Critics Are Wrong
Joe Paterno’s status as a moral beacon remains undiminished.

Joe Paterno on the Penn State sidelines in Orlando, Fla., January 10, 2010


The many critics of my article on Joe Paterno proved that some people in our culture, thank God, have not become “non-judgmental.” Some still have a robust moral sense. Same for most sportswriters I have read or heard, who seem to have taken the same tack as my critics, impugning as with one voice Joe Paterno’s moral legacy. At the same time, this readiness to diminish the classic greatness of Joe Paterno’s moral responsibility exposes the dangers at the opposite extreme.

My critics are correct on one small point: I did choose not to assess whether Coach Paterno was guilty of moral fault. Any such assessment is morally corrupting, and for four reasons. First, Americans react with horror to anything smacking of child abuse, and properly so. But we have recently experienced massive rushes to judgment that turned out to have been calumnious. We have seen psychologists in court misuse “repressed memories” to falsely accuse child-care providers of molesting tots over a long period of time. What an agony for those falsely accused — and later acquitted, too late to get their reputations wholly cleansed. 

Second, we all went through the press stampede to condemn the young men of the lacrosse team at Duke for a deed they did not commit. It took months for the courts to vindicate these men’s innocence. Lesson: Those who falsely accuse athletes frequently go unchallenged for a very long time.

Third, just after my column appeared, my brother sent me Robert Louis Stevenson’s acrid rebuke to the Reverend Hyde, who brandished in a public letter a string of unproven allegations of moral sins by Damien the Leper, who had volunteered to live his whole life on an isolated island, to care alone for lepers avoided by the whole rest of the world. Stevenson had publicly praised Damien’s moral greatness.

Stevenson chose neither to deny nor to argue against Hyde’s allegations. Even if all these accusations are correct in every detail, Stevenson retorted, such was the moral greatness of Damien’s self-sacrifice that retailing his sins in public merely diminished the moral standing of those who did so, including the insufferable Reverend Hyde:

I will suppose — and God forgive me for supposing it — that Damien faltered and stumbled in his narrow path of duty; I will suppose that, in the horror of his isolation, perhaps in the fever of incipient disease, he, who was doing so much more than he had sworn, failed in the letter of his priestly oath — he, who was so much a better man than either you or me, who did what we have never dreamed of daring — he too tasted of our common frailty. “O, Iago, the pity of it!” The least tender should be moved to tears; the most incredulous to prayer. And all that you could do was to pen your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage! [Who published it.]

Is it growing at all clear to you what a picture you have drawn of your own heart? I will try yet once again to make it clearer. You had a father: suppose this tale were about him, and some informant brought it to you, proof in hand: I am not making too high an estimate of your emotional maturity when I suppose you would regret the circumstance? That you would feel the tale of frailty the more keenly since it shamed the author of your days? And that the last thing you would do would be to publish it in the religious press? Well, the man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father . . . and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it.

Fourth, the forum for defending moral innocence lies before God alone, who reads all consciences limpidly. And into that forum no other of us has a right to intrude. By contrast, a public forum for “moral responsibility” does not exist. There is no court for it. There are no rules for it. But the so-called court of public opinion does exist, and as far as I can detect, its function is to squeeze from the amorphous feeling “somebody should have done more to stop this” (because such things shouldn’t happen amongst human beings, even though they actually do occur in monstrously disturbing numbers throughout the country) — its function is to squeeze this feeling into an accusation against somebody.