Joe Paterno’s (Apparent) Fall from Grace

What Would the Course Have Us Do When Someone Seems to Fail Us?

The world of college football has been rocked recently by a child sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach at Penn State, a scandal that has led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno. It is a truly tragic story, one that seems to get worse with each passing day as more is revealed. But here, rather than focusing on all the sordid details, I want to focus on one aspect of it: the shifting public perception of Joe Paterno. Yet another admired public figure has fallen from grace, and everyone has an opinion about it. The opinions run the gamut, from supporters willing to give him every benefit of the doubt to detractors who literally want him to rot in hell. What would A Course in Miracles have us do when someone seems to fail us, especially someone we admire and trust? How would it have us respond when someone falls short of our expectations, whether it is a famous person like Joe Paterno or anyone else?

What happened? Here is a summary at the time of this writing, based in part on a grand jury report. (If you want more details, follow the link above.) Jerry Sandusky was a long-time assistant football coach at Penn State, who had a long history of suspect behavior with young boys he met through his charitable organization for troubled youth. He would shower with them in the Penn State showers, and there was at least one instance in 2000 where a janitor reported seeing him engaged in sexual activity with a boy, though no formal report was filed.

In 2002, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach at the time (now the wide receivers coach), witnessed Sandusky engaged in sexual activity with a boy in the shower, and reported it to head coach Paterno. Paterno reported it to Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley. Eventually, McQueary met with Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, and Curley and Schultz said they would look further into the incident.

But to make a very long story short, though all of these men were fully aware of this eyewitness report of Sandusky sexually abusing a boy (and of his suspect past activities with boys), there were no significant consequences for Sandusky. His keys to the locker room were apparently taken away, but he retained professor emeritus status, an office on campus, and full use of other campus facilities. No police report was ever filed. And Sandusky continued his suspect activities with boys for nine more years.

Finally, on November 5 of this year, Sandusky was arrested and charged with forty counts related to sexual abuse of young boys. With this arrest, a firestorm erupted as the story of the past years, including McQueary’s report from 2002, came out. It appears that a number of high-ranking officials at Penn State, including the athletic director, a vice president, and even university president Graham Spanier, knew all about Sandusky’s history, but did nothing significant to stop him, allowing him to continue to prey on young boys for years. It appears to be a classic coverup. It seems that the prestige of the university and its storied football program took precedence over the safety of young boys. Curley and Schultz resigned their positions and surrendered to police, charged with failing to report the complaints against Sandusky to police. Spanier was fired.

Then there was Paterno. While he apparently discharged his legal responsibilities by reporting the 2002 incident to his immediate supervisor Curley, he seems to have done little more. He apparently never talked to his longtime assistant Sandusky about the incident McQueary reported, nor followed it up in any way. There is no evidence that he did anything significant to address Sandusky’s long history of suspect activities. In short, it looks like he participated in the coverup. And, given the immense power and prestige he carried as a legendary football coach, he had perhaps the greatest ability and responsibility to do something about the situation. He says himself now that “In hindsight, I should have done more.”

In the wake of the scandal, Paterno announced his retirement, effective at the end of the 2011 season. But the public outcry was so strong that in the end he was fired, effective immediately. He had been head coach at Penn State for an astounding forty-six years. He was not only the winningest head coach in major college history, but he also headed a program renowned for its integrity and excellence in other respects. His players did well academically. His program never had a significant violation of NCAA rules, a rarity in an age of “win at all costs.” He had a sterling reputation as a molder of fine young men, attested to by the many former players who sang his praises. Now, abruptly and shockingly, it was all over.

What an awful tale – a tragedy worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. And one thing that makes it especially shocking is the contrast between the apparent good character of Joe Paterno and his football program and the horror of the crimes and their coverup. What are we to make of this? As I mentioned at the beginning, I want to focus on the shifting public perception of Joe Paterno as an icon who has apparently “fallen from grace.” As I’ve read the public fallout, a clear pattern has emerged. (I don’t mean to suggest that everything I’ve read about the Paterno situation fits the pattern; I’m simply saying that the pattern is prevalent.)

I want to talk more about this pattern, because in my experience it happens quite frequently. As a spiritual teacher, I often see it when highly regarded spiritual teachers are caught in improprieties, like the Eastern gurus who are found to be physically and sexually abusing their students. So it is a big issue, one that transcends this particular situation with Joe Paterno and Penn State, an issue we face any time someone seems to betray our trust. Let me, then, describe the pattern I see in more detail.

In this pattern, we look at the person in question through the distorted filter of our pre-existing biases. On the one hand, there are the supporters, who give the person every benefit of the doubt. What the Course says about how we view ourselves applies to the supporters’ view of this person: They “[count] the ‘good’ to pardon him the ‘bad'” (T-31.VII.1:6). In their minds, there is a kind of point system in which points on the “good” side cancel out points on the “bad” side. In the extreme version of this, the “bad” points, even the worst points, can be counted as “good” – I’ll never forget the Sai Baba supporter who wrote that Sai Baba’s molestation of young boys was the “God Man’s” way of loving them.

You can certainly see this phenomenon with Paterno’s supporters. They say: Look at all the good he did for the young men in his football program. Look at all the money he gave to the university. Look at all the prestige and admiration he brought us. He wasn’t the one who actually abused the children. He was loyal to his friends, like Sandusky and Curley. He trusted them, and this time that admirable trait got him in trouble. Now, many of these things may actually be true (some of them are definitely true), but the point here is how they are used. There often seems to be a tone of defensiveness behind them; the appeals to his goodness seem to whitewash the incident, to minimize the full extent of his mistakes.

On the other hand, there the detractors, those who either never supported the person in question or are disillusioned former supporters. (The disillusioned former supporters are often the angriest of all, because their positive image of the person has been shattered; I’m reminded of what the Course says in T-29.IV.5:2: “No one can fail but your idea of him, and there is no betrayal but of this.”) They tend to go to the other extreme, not giving the person the benefit of anything. You could say that they count the “bad” to utterly erase the “good.” In their eyes, the awful thing the person did is worth so many “bad” points that all the “good” points are cancelled out. I see this in many of the cases of spiritual leaders. A leader who, whatever his faults, helped many and did some genuine good can be transformed overnight into nothing but a corrupt charlatan with no redeeming virtues whatsoever.

You can see this phenomenon too with Paterno’s detractors. Some of the condemnations I’ve read are truly chilling. There is a lot of vicious anger out there. In many people’s eyes, Paterno is now scum. As I said above, there are detractors who quite literally want him to rot in hell forever. I’m sure at least some of this is a flash of initial anger due to the gravity of child sex abuse. Perhaps cooler heads will prevail in time. But it is still disquieting to witness. It’s as if Paterno’s entire career, in which he surely must have done a lot of good – those admiring former players can’t all be lying – now counts for absolutely nothing. His entire being is now defined by one (admittedly very serious) mistake, so much so that in some people’s eyes, he now deserves to suffer eternally.

The culmination of this pattern is that our actions are based on this distorted perception, whichever way the distortion goes. If we are supporters, we vigorously defend the person in question; if we are detractors, we just as vigorously denounce him. I’ve seen this in full force with Paterno. His most vociferous detractors, of course, were calling for his head on a platter, and in the end they got their wish when he was fired. Meanwhile, his defenders, too, went on the offensive. In particular, large numbers of Penn State students took to the streets to support him. After he was fired, thousands of students rioted in the streets, flipping over a television van, knocking a lamp post into a car, and throwing rocks at police in riot gear.

In my mind, the problem with this whole scenario, whatever side one is on, is that it is rooted in distortion of the truth. The biases of people on each side create a view of the situation that is selective and incomplete. With perception thus distorted, no response will be appropriate, because it it based to at least some degree on falsehood.

How would the Course have us do things differently in situations like this? I think it would have us – with the Holy Spirit’s help – look at the situation with unflinching honesty, and act on the basis of that clear-eyed, honest perspective. In short, I think the Course calls us to respond with a total commitment to truth on all levels.

The ultimate truth from the Course’s standpoint, of course, is that everyone is a holy Son of God, the Christ, regardless of what he or she has done. So above all, what the Course wants us to do in situations like this is to forgive everyone involved. This means using the eyes of Christ to look past all the behaviors, “good” and “bad” alike – to abandon the point system entirely – and see instead the face of Christ in each person. One who forgives “overlooks the mind [the other’s misperceptions] and body [the other’s mistaken behaviors], seeing only the face of Christ shining in front of him, correcting all mistakes and healing all perception” (M-22.4:5). To see the face of Christ is simply to see the truth about Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky and anyone else.

Imagine the powerful healing effect true forgiveness could have on this situation. Based on the grand jury testimony, it appears that Sandusky himself (as with many child molesters) is painfully aware of the wrongness of his actions, and felt terribly guilty about what he was doing even as he continued doing it. Apologizing to the mother of a boy he showered with in 1998, he said, “I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.” Even as steps are taken to ensure that he does not abuse boys again, imagine the healing that could happen if just one person could say to him with real conviction: “Whatever you have done, I still love you and God still loves you. You are the Christ, and you remain as God created you”?

How, then, are we to look on the behavior of the people involved from this forgiving perspective? Let’s start with the “bad” behavior, the mistakes. I think the Course wants us to look upon those mistakes with that total commitment to truth. This means, as the Manual puts it, “What is important is only the recognition of a mistake as a mistake” (M-7.5:8). Rather than trying to whitewash mistakes in any way, with the Holy Spirit’s help we need to look them full in the face and call them what they are. They are not sins – that is what forgiveness helps us realize – but they are mistakes that need loving correction of some sort (not necessarily by you, though in some instances it might be). So with Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky and anyone else, we need to look with unwavering honesty at what really happened on the level of this dream – which in this case involves tragic mistakes I can imagine Jesus shedding “many tears over” (Urtext) – and not dress it up in any way.

Some may object that this conflicts with the “Correction of Error” section in the Text, which seems to suggest that we should never see and correct another’s error. However, I’ve written an article showing that this section does not in fact forbid this. Here, let me simply say that Jesus himself was very honest and no-nonsense in addressing Helen and Bill’s errors, as well as ours in the pages of the Course. He also praised others for this same no-nonsense attitude. Speaking of Freud’s view of the ego, he said, “Freud was more clear-sighted about this, because he knew a bad thing when he perceived it.” Speaking of Mrs. Albert’s response to Helen, he noted how “she corrected your error about her name without embarrassment and without hostility.”

Of course, seeing and correcting errors should be done with love, forgiveness, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. My point here is simply that throughout the Course material, Jesus always promotes an attitude of looking squarely at mistakes with complete honesty, a complete commitment to the truth.

We are meant to apply this same attitude to the “good” behavior, the genuine acts of love that people do. Again with the Holy Spirit’s help, we want to see these acts as the acts of love that they are, and fully acknowledge them as such. And even though the Course does want us to see mistakes honestly, it clearly wants us to place more emphasis on the genuine good that people do:

Dream of your brother’s kindnesses instead of dwelling in your dreams on his mistakes. Select his thoughtfulness to dream about instead of counting up the hurts he gave. Forgive him his illusions, and give thanks to him for all the helpfulness he gave. And do not brush aside his many gifts because he is not perfect in your dreams. He represents his Father. (T-27.VII.15:3-7)

So, in the case of Paterno, Sandusky, and anyone else, even as we fully acknowledge the mistakes, we shouldn’t dwell on the mistakes and count up the hurts they gave. Instead, we should focus on the kindness, the thoughtfulness, the helpfulness they gave. Surely all of them, even Sandusky, have done many good things in the course of their careers. The testimony of the many people whose lives they touched certainly suggests that. Sure, much of the support, especially from the fans who don’t know them personally, comes from the fact that they won a lot of football games. But surely it isn’t only that. They made a positive difference in many lives.

This may sound a lot like counting the “good” to pardon the “bad,” but it really isn’t. Here, we’re not focusing on the good that people have done in order to whitewash the mistakes. Rather, what we’re supposed to do is look upon both the good and the mistakes with complete honesty, but see only the good as a witness to what is ultimately true about them. This, of course, is a further act of honesty, because their true Self really is only good. The mistakes are just mistakes, but the good things they do are evidence of their true nature. That’s why we should focus on those rather than the mistakes.

From this perspective of commitment to truth on all levels, what should we then do in situations like this? That, of course, is in the hands of the Holy Spirit. We might be guided to say a prayer, offer kind words, or do something loving. This might include loving correction of the mistakes. Every situation is unique, and only the Holy Spirit knows the most appropriate response in each case. There is no formula. But if we make that commitment to truth and stick to it, I think we are much more likely to hear His guidance clearly and be able to act on it in a spirit of love. A clear-eyed view of the situation is much more likely to lead to wise and compassionate action.

Penn State played a home game against Nebraska a few days after Paterno was fired, and while I obviously can’t know the motives of everyone involved, what people did there struck me as a good symbolic representation of the approach I’m advocating. Before the game started, both Penn State and Nebraska players kneeled together in prayer – a gesture of healing and (I hope) forgiveness. (One of the prayer leaders prayed: “Lord, we know we don’t have control of all these events that took place this week. But we do know that you are bigger than it all.”) The stadium was decked in blue, the color associated with child abuse prevention, and $22,000 was raised for child abuse prevention organizations – acknowledging the mistakes. And the fans cheered when Joe Paterno’s image appeared in a video montage – seeing the good. It is my hope that real healing can come out of all this, and I trust that with God’s help, it can.

This approach of total commitment to truth on all levels, I believe, can work miracles. I see it, for instance, in the work of Mother Antonia, an American nun who has spent over thirty years in loving service to the inmates and staff at a prison in Tijuana, Mexico. Above all, she looks upon everyone there with love and forgiveness: In her words, she loves “the people other people think are unlovable.” She sees the face of Christ in all of them. From that loving stance, a stance that says (in her words) “We are not our mistakes and our errors,” she is not at all afraid to point out in a firm and no-nonsense way the mistakes of those she serves, some of whom have committed serious crimes. She believes that facing their mistakes fully is essential to healing. But at the same time, she constantly acknowledges and joyously affirms the good things they do, however large or small. As the authors of a wonderful book about her say:

Mother Antonia believes in forgiveness because she is sure there is goodness in everyone, no matter how hardened they’ve become or how hard it is to see. She has helped many La Mesa inmates find their better sides.

This approach has changed the hearts of countless people, including even the most hardened drug lords. So, I think this commitment to truth is much more than just a Course-correct approach to the issue of how to respond to those who have apparently fallen from grace. It has the power to change lives.

So, who in your life has seemingly fallen from grace? Is there a person, perhaps one you have admired and trusted, who has seemingly failed you? I invite you to try the approach I’ve presented here. With the Course’s and the Holy Spirit’s help, do what you can to commit your mind to truth on all levels. With the eyes of Christ, see the truth of who this person is. Honestly acknowledge both his mistakes and his good deeds, with an emphasis on the good deeds as witnesses to the truth of who he is. Finally, let the Holy Spirit guide you in expressing your recognition of the truth of who he is.

This discovery of the truth is a process; it probably won’t happen overnight. But in time, as we walk the Course’s path day by day, we will all realize the truth that will set us free, the truth that we can never fall from grace. As the Course never ceases to remind us, “You are in a state of grace forever” (T-1.III.5:6).

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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