Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Finishing Well

Joe Paterno.  Seems like the name along conjures up some fairly strong emotions these days, no longer just in central Pennsylvania or with college football fans.  Paterno coached the Nittany Lions football team for 26 seasons before he was fired amidst allegations of “looking the other way” when one of his assistant coaches was charged with sexual abuse.  He lost his battle to cancer at the age of 85 and some might think that a merciful end for a man whose legacy is now marred with decisions that he made…or didn’t make.

Now, not only has his reputation been marred by his sins of omission, but his legacy at Penn State is more than in jeopardy.  The statue outside Beaver Stadium has been removed, all that is left is empty concrete with the hint of what used to be there.  The statue of Paterno and the players that followed him has been removed.  Sanctions are being imposed on the university and it seems there are efforts to wipe even the memory of Paterno from the history books, or at least remove any indication that he was at Penn State from the eyes of any and all who might come onto campus.

Here are the words from CNN.com's story, "Within 24 hours, Joe Paterno's statue at Penn State University came down and his record as the winningest coach at the top level of college football disappeared.  The steps by Penn State President Rodney Erickson and the National Collegiate Athletic Association drew sharply differing reactions Monday. They are the latest impact from a child sex-abuse scandal now linked forever to the university's storied football program.  Paterno's family and diehard Penn State loyalists condemned the penalties as an overzealous response that unfairly targeted the former coach, who died of lung cancer in January after being fired the previous November to end his 46-year career at the university." (For the rest of the story, click here: http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/23/us/penn-state-reaction/index.html?hpt=hp_t2 )

Sports can flesh out some fairly charged passions and emotions in people.  Big schools with big sports programs can have some pretty big fans and Penn State is no exception.  As time goes on, I am sure that more and more information will be revealed about things that happened behind the scenes at Penn State.  There have been accusations of favoritism shown to athletes, but that’s nothing new in colleges today.  It seems that stories are always emerging about the antics of athletes, both collegiate and professional. 

But the emphasis of sports in America and in our schools is most likely fodder for another blog post, not this one.  The real question that I have is regarding the latest debate at Penn State over the removal of Joe Paterno’s statue from the stadium.  Are the sins and indiscretions of this man whose undeniable football legacy enough to warrant the removal of a statue honoring what he accomplished?  Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

I’m not condoning what Paterno did in his covering up, at worst, or looking away from, at best, the vile behavior of one of his coaches.  In fact, it stirs up in me a common question that I have asked myself over the last few years: how do we finish well?

Regardless of Paterno’s accomplishments in football, this is the last and only thing some people will remember.  Despite his success, there are certain people who can’t look past this.  It’s not like this is the only time something like this has happened either.  While I hesitate to compare the significantly different behavior, Pete Rose is still vying for a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame after the mistakes that he made in the end of his career.  Regardless of what Rose accomplished, his legacy is marred and may never be cleared up because of how things ended.

Paterno died too soon for anyone to fully understand or see how he would be reacting to all of this.  There is no way for Paterno to issue a public statement.  He can't hold a press conference and express his deep regret and offer apologies to the families of the victims.  He can't submit himself to discipline in order that he might try to make amends for what has been done.

The other night at dinner, I scolded my 3 year old for some of his behavior.  He turned his back towards me and said, "You can't see me doing this."  I was shocked and surprised that he would even consider that and my wife reminded him that we do the right thing regardless of whether we think someone is watching or not.  That's the definition of character, right, who you are when you think nobody's watching you?

Over the last decade, I have seen my fair share of people's lives end, not the least of which was my mom.  As the end drew near, my observance grew stronger and I watched to see how these people would finish.  The Apostle Paul likened life to a race that we run.  It's certainly no sprint, it's a long distance run.  In long distance runs, it's essential to pace yourself.  If you don't, you will find yourself not finishing well.

Of the many people who I've observed at the end of their life, there were some who finished well and others who didn't.  I recall a man who had been on the beach of Iwo Jima and survived.  He had a reputation in his earlier life for being a great Bible teacher.  I was not privileged to have observed that earlier part of his life, all that I experienced was the way that he fed many ill feelings of the members of his Sunday School class who were less than satisfied with changes taking place within the church.  He stirred up controversy and promoted division.  He did not finish well.

Paterno did not finish well.  His reputation in the future will constantly be remembered not by what he did, but by what he didn't do.  I am holding no stones.  I have failed enough in my lifetime to know better.  But what I can do is strive to finish the race well.  I can live my life consistently and choose to learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before me.  I do not want mistakes that I make or sins that I commit to mar any and every memory of whatever else I might have done in my life.

May we all learn a valuable lesson from this, not by casting stones, but by living our lives differently.

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