Joe Paterno died yesterday morning.
For 50 years, he was a god of college football; he may be the best college football coach of all time. While coaching, he not only won more games than anybody, but his Penn State team produced 250 NFL players, went undefeated five times, finished in the top 25 over 35 times and won two national championships. He did all of this while producing a score of academic all-Americans and having one of the highest graduation rates of any football programs in the country—certainly better than any program that was actually good at football.
In this way, none of us are like Joe Paterno. Not at all. He was a once-in-a-lifetime legend. He was better than us. Few, if any of us, are as good at what we do as he was good at what he did. He was special. And what was particularly special about him is that he was such an amazing coach and leader while coming off like a regular person. That’s not easy.
He was so great that I think the ultimate story about him will eventually outshine the awful ugliness of a child molestation scandal that happened right under his nose—on his watch, by his coordinator, on his turf. You know why I’m OK with this?
We are all Joe Paterno.
Hundreds of thousands of children are molested right under our noses, on our watch, in our country, in other countries—and only a few people are out there fighting for them. They are rare. They are as rare on the earth as Joe Paterno was rare on the football field. This is tragic. Sure, few of us may have someone we are supervising do what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing to kids on the campus of Penn State. But I don’t think that absolves us from the real responsibility of advocating and fighting on behalf of victimized kids everywhere.
We know it’s happening. We know they’re being raped. We know they’re being forced to do unthinkable things. We know they’re being bought and sold like property in record numbers all over the world. We are all witnesses to what some people say is the height of human trafficking in the history of the world.
But we’re all too busy, too frightened and too overwhelmed; full of too many excuses to help even one child escape abuse. You may be coming up with an excuse right now as to why you are not like Joe Paterno, but you are. If Paterno is ugly, then you are ugly. Does that make it right? Of course not. We’re all wrong and we are all missing the mark on this issue—just like Paterno did.
Joe Paterno passed the responsibility of standing up for victimized children off to other people at Penn State. Legally, that was just fine, but morally he dropped the ball, and his legacy will pay a real price for this. However, you and I pass this ball like a hot potato every single day. While we wait for other people to free slaves, while we wait for other people to stand against perpetrators of sex crimes against kids, more kids are harmed—on our watch.
If it is true that Joe Paterno is a bad man for not doing more (and maybe it is), then it is true for all of us. It smacks of self-righteousness for us to blast him for not doing enough to protect children from abuse, because we know we aren’t doing enough either. Even today, people have told me, “If I was Joe Paterno, I would have done something to stand up for those kids.”
The truth is that you don’t know what you would do if you were Joe Paterno because you are not Joe Paterno. In general, people greatly exaggerate what they would do under the greatest pressure. You don’t have to worry what you would have done if you were Joe, but you and I have a chance to risk it all to stand up for kids that are being abused today—and we aren’t.
Shaun King, a techie-humanitarian, is the founder of HopeMob, a brand new social media charity platform launching in March of 2012. His social good projects have been featured in O Magazine, on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and on the front page of the Wall Street Journal; they have raised over $5 million for charity and received over 100 million hits on the web. This article was adapted from his blog with permission.