Joe Paterno has died. Our condolences go out to his family.
Many do not know how to respond to his legacy and ask, "Will one mistake define him?"
Yes, in a sense, it will. Every story written will include three words: "coach," "fired," and "abuse." It is a terrible but unavoidable thing.
Coach Paterno reported the abuse to his supervisors-- but he did not do enough. Coach Paterno understood and said, "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
Should that one mistake define Joe Paterno? Perhaps not "define," but it will always mar his legacy. The fact that he did not do more will always tarnish his reputation.
Coach Paterno is more than that one great failure, but for the sake of future generations, we must not forget that failure. We must not forget that several boys were allegedly molested and no one risked reputation to protect them.
Coach Paterno will be praised as a great coach-- and he should be. He led the program marked by academic and athletic integrity. Paterno will always have a statue and an historic record.
Yet, the fact that this stain will be forever be connected with Paterno's legacy may, in fact, lead to the protection of future generations. People will remember, be more likely to report, and perhaps more children will be protected. If future "people in power" will remember what Paterno's inaction cost him and others, maybe they will be less likely to ignore the cry of an innocent victim.
As best we can tell, Coach Paterno was a great coach and leader who made a big mistake that allowed immeasurable harm. Yet, part of Coach Paterno's legacy may well be to remind people to protect children in a way he did not.
Coach Paterno wished he "had done more" to protect children. I think that through his tarnished legacy, he will.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.