Joe Paterno is gone now, as the Board of Trustees at Penn State sent him packing yesterday, along with the president of the university, Graham Spanier. It had to happen, of course. A lot more needs to happen in the coming days as a great university has to deal with the moral dry rot and human carnage left behind.
In some respects, this situation reminds me of how I felt when we first learned the truth about Tom Petters, the Minnesota businessman whose business empire turned out to be a massive fraud. Because Petters had given large sums to charity and had been a figure of considerable goodwill in the community, it seemed unbelievable that he could have been orchestrating a shell game instead of a legitimate business, but the truth came out. It always does.
Paterno built and maintained a football program that seemed to embody everything that was good about sports. His success was evident on the field and in the larger world -- there are successful, well-spoken Penn State football alumni all over the country and they have, in the main, done remarkable things. None of that has changed. The lesson of this sordid ending is that no matter how successful you've been, no matter how much power and goodwill you've accumulated, there is likely to be a moment of truth, a moment when you have to do something that might cause your institution and your reputation great harm. There is great risk in doing the right thing, but you have to do it, no matter the circumstances. In 2002, it would been a huge shock to learn the truth about Jerry Sandusky, but if Paterno had stood tall at that moment, he'd have been able to make a horrible situation end. Nine years have passed since that moment and things have only become worse now. In attempting to preserve an empire, Paterno now loses everything, as he must.