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


Our legal system is set up to protect the victims of crimes, but also to protect innocent people against false and perhaps ruinous accusations. No law compels a witness to a crime to come forward with information (lest information seem coerced), much less a secondhand source. But Paterno did step forward — and ought to have. He also preserved the chain of due process. I have no access to Paterno’s thought processes here. His own legal standing depended on calling the right offices in the right order. Paterno had strong reasons for following the law carefully. In addition, Paterno had had no experience with Schultz and Curley that would lead him not to trust them. It appears that President Graham Spanier and the board did not, either. They dedicated the Gary Schultz Child Care Center on campus in September 2011.

(4) I have often taught my students that one thing Jewish and Christian religious beliefs add to moral philosophy is the idea that God sees all the things that the law cannot possibly see. That is why a believer should paint the bottom of a chair, even if not required, even if only God sees it. One works to please Him, not just the law.

We know now that Coach Paterno later grieved that he might have done more than he did do. I cannot think what that would have been. But such a thought would indicate that Joe was also thinking of the bottom of the chair, something extra.

Yet damn it! I feel morally diminished by pretending to stand in God’s place, seeing into Joe Paterno’s soul. I am in no position to judge what exactly Coach Paterno knew (and imagined) when he reported to university authorities that something “way over the line” had been witnessed in a university shower. What Paterno did do was responsible, dutiful, and called for — and in the end, it proved effective.

On the other side of the ledger, some critics objected that I did make two moral judgments in my first piece, one by calling what the board of trustees did an injustice, the other by pointing to Paterno as a moral beacon.

On the board, first. By not giving this great man a hearing, and by not having the decency to present their verdict to him face-to-face, the board did severe damage to Joe Paterno’s invaluable legacy, which lay in their hands to cherish and protect. In their defense, I can easily imagine — because I have heard them elsewhere — experts in law and PR heatedly and with total certainty advising the board: “Cut off the bad publicity now!

I just regret that there were not at least a few trustees who objected: “Let’s at least be decent. Let’s not throw away Paterno’s legacy, which is one of the greatest of the university’s assets. Keep his legacy alive. Accept his resignation. Call him here or let a small committee be allowed in through his back door, to avoid the crowd out front. Hear him out. We must NOT do this badly.

The New York Times article cited above makes clear that not a single voice, whether actually in the room or on the telephone, raised such an objection. For shame.

As to the charge that I highly praised Joe Paterno’s legacy as a moral beacon that will outlive not only Joe but all of us — Oh yes, I am guilty of that! Without going into Paterno’s conscience and his daily relationship with his Lord, I can see that across the whole of his public life Coach Paterno represented to tens of thousands the greatest moral leader of his region, a model of the classic Western ideal. JoePa was honored most by those who knew him best: upright, out-front, faithful to his word, beyond the call of duty in his loyalty to his players, to his community, and to his university. And, as it appears to those who knew him closest, loyal also to his Lord.

The record also shows that Joe Paterno was “The Thousandth Man” Rudyard Kipling sings of:

One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.

And it’s worthwhile seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.

God be with you, Coach Paterno.

— 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