Jason Gay, sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal, correctly mused how “treacherous it is to elevate mortals into myths.” He was speaking about the staggering and lightning-fast descent of the legendary college football coach, Penn State’s Joe Paterno.
The “Penn State Scandal,” as it is has become known, does not deal with a football player getting into mischief. It does not deal with an alumni booster violating NCAA rules. Nor does it involve a coach committing recruiting violations. This matter involves the far more serious and terrifying crime of child molestation.
The story has two major components. First, the alleged acts of a long-tenured assistant coach are the subject of 23-page criminal indictment handed down by a Pennsylvania grand jury. This issue will be properly adjudicated in a court of law with all of the appropriate protections of due process.
The second issue, which is of paramount inquiry to us, is the manner in which Coach Paterno and other Penn State officials responded after being informed of the actions in question.
Is it enough that he violated no state or federal law?
As of now, no one is accusing Paterno of any crime, or of any failure to follow the rules established by Penn State University. Yet is it enough that Paterno committed no crime? Is it enough that he followed the basic administrative guidelines? Is it enough that he violated no state or federal law? What else is required of him? What else is required of us?
When Paterno realized that the Penn State administration was not dealing with the situation (or perhaps covering it up), what should he have done? Was he under any further obligation? Even if he was under no legal obligation, is there a difference between the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law”?
The Torah states: “Do not stand idly on your brother’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). This is an imperative to get involved when a situation goes awry. The Almighty created the world as a workshop for self-perfection. No matter what our station in life, no matter what our innate abilities, the Almighty puts us in a particular situation in order that we make the right choice – no matter how uncomfortable or how politically inexpedient.
Remember when Kitty Genovese was being stabbed to death on the streets of New York, as 38 people stood by as witnesses? None was “required” to step in or call the police. And none did.
That is surely not the Jewish way. Our Sages teach that even when there is potential danger to oneself, one is obligated to save another person from certain danger. (Hagahot Maimoniyot, Kesef Mishnah – Hilchot Rotze’ach; Beit Yosef CM 426)
Imperative to Act
So what would have been required in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania? When the graduate student walked into the shower room and allegedly discovered the horrific acts of the assistant coach, what should he have done?
He should have first attempted to stop it. And then he should have walked out and immediately called 911. But he did not.
Why did he not call the authorities if no one else had done so?
When the graduate student reported it to Coach Paterno, should Paterno have merely reported it to the school’s Athletic Director? Why did he not call the legal authorities? And if not at that time, why not when he realized that no one else had done so?
It’s hard to prove a negative. Nobody can know for sure how much one could have done or should have done to prevent a tragedy.
Indeed, Paterno and others may have acted “appropriately” under the letter of the law. But to be a role model – to be a hero to young athletes and to thousands of Penn State students and fans – we must demand a bit more.
In a similar vein, the Jewish people have been designated as a light unto the nations. Shall we live merely to the “letter of the law”? Shall we do only what is minimally required of us by secular law or other rules? Or shall we perfect our lives within the framework of Torah so that we send a clear message of how to act in even the most horrific circumstances?
The Torah says that if you have a chance to fix something in the world – whether stopping your colleague from an illegal act, or helping to feed starving children – and you do not act, then you ultimately bear responsibility. Perhaps, for that reason alone, the firing of Joe Paterno was justified.