Writing in the midst of a cauldron of charges and investigations about child abuse, is not easy. Writing with certainty about anything in such times is not wise. I therefore make no other pronouncements other than this: All of this matters.
By that, I mean to say, Paterno’s legacy will matter. I don’t just mean his legacy as a Brown educated coach, Brooklyn-accent, Easterner who preferred reading classics to hunting deer in a blue-collar Western PA place called “Happy Valley.” I don’t mean his legacy as the man who not only impacted the football reputation of that college but, as Bill Pennington put it in theNew York Times, “was Penn State.”
His legacy will include his concern for players, his development work in raising the academic influence of Penn State, and his character; not the character in the sense of the Columbo-like figure (with thick glasses) that roamed the sidelines like just another professor on campus who just happens to rule over big time football in America, but the character of the man. That character which is so large and good that it shapes others’ character. All of those things matter.
Now some may remember, years from now, this tragic incident. Maybe a lapse in judgement. Maybe things we don’t know. Yes, surely things we don’t know. Will that be his legacy as well? Almost certainly.
Legacies are about the impact that people leave on other people, good and bad. We do not know if this alleged crime against a child and the failure to report it — surely the greatest tragedy of all in this sordid story — that ended Paterno’s career will loom so large that it overshadows the other facets of what was already a great legacy. The more we hear, the worse it gets.
Whenever there is abuse there is also a new, sad legacy, as well, that becomes lodged in families and infects generations. That legacy matters infinitely more than a coach’s. This is not about sports. It is about a crime that is unspeakably horrible.
But we know this—at least those who know Jesus Christ know this—sin stains the greatest among us and the most vulnerable among us. That is what happened in the fall of Mankind. And if that were all the truth we knew in our worldview lens, as we looked at this, and as we looked at life, then we would be of all men most pitiable.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ is that the legacy of shame was overcome at the cross, when God became Man to live the life we could not live and “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5.:21 ESV). That is the gospel—the Good News.
Embedded in every shameful story of our lives, our families, is the reality of that stain of sin. And that is why Christ came: to remove the stain with His own pure life and give that life to all who will turn from themselves and receive His life and His death for their sin. That is the gospel. And the gospel changes legacies. And for the children of abuse, the families in pain, and even one of the greatest coaches of our time, that is really all that matters now.
May the legacy of the Cross destroy the legacy of heartache. Again.