Early Sunday morning, July 22, the church of college football preached a sermon without words. At Penn State University, a work crew fenced off, covered, and then removed a life-sized statue of the winningest coach in the history of college football.

The next day, we learned that the removal of this icon of Joe Paterno’s achievements foretold the removal of the achievements themselves. In an unprecedented step, the NCAA expunged 14 years of his coaching career from the record books. A total of 111 wins are no longer wins. They are, rather, failures. Failure to defend children too weak to defend themselves.

What did Paterno do to deserve such a draconian punishment? Not enough. That’s the problem.

Paterno was not a sexual predator by any account. No doubt he would be utterly appalled to learn the results of his inactivity. But that matters nothing to Sandusky’s victims. The Louis Freeh Report is unequivocal.

The most saddening finding by the special investigative counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims. Four of the most powerful people at the university — President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno — failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.

As a result, their lives were damaged in irrevocable ways.

By the removal of an icon, the message was articulate and clear. You are your brother’s keeper. And this silent sermon resonates in every human heart. The details of the punishment may be debated. But the outrage itself is beyond debate. The right thing was left undone. It should have been done. There is no excuse.

All of us are truly saddened. All of us truly hope and pray that the sanctions of the NCAA might help these victims heal a little bit. Finally their screams have been heard. Finally someone stood up to acknowledge their existence and the pain they have endured in silence. Finally someone has publicly said: You needed our protection. You deserved our care. We could have protected you. But we did not. I pray God’s peace and blessings on their recovery.

All of us are also looking toward Penn State University. We want them, and college football generally, to learn an important lesson. No entity, no program, no way of life is so important as to absolve you of your responsibilities to even the smallest person. Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, made this plain: “Our goal is to not be just punitive, but to make sure that the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people.”

All of us should also be looking to ourselves. This lesson is not only for programs and institutions. It is a lesson for each and every one of us. You are your brother’s keeper. When your brother needs protection, no social program, no political loyalty, no peer pressure is a legitimate reason to fail him. Whatever the cost, whatever the inconvenience, whatever the sacrifice to success, reputation, friendship or social standing, every human being, no matter how small, is your brother; and you are your brother’s keeper.

So, who exactly needs your protecting? Every reader of this column will be able to name certain people smaller, younger, more vulnerable than you. Their cries for help move you to action. There are also the nameless and voiceless. Every day 3,500 new victims — people — are killed without being able to scream for help. Ignorance of their names and inability to hear their screams does not lessen our responsibilities. Nor do your personal feelings about abortion matter to the victims. Powerless victims are not helped by your affirmations. They need your voice. They need your care. They need your protection.

When a decade of coaching achievements are counted as nothing, it is a sermon we all must take to heart. To paraphrase Mark Emmert: “Our goal is not to be just punitive, but to make sure that our society establishes a culture and daily mindset in which partisan politics, personal ambition, or peer pressure will never again be placed ahead of defending, caring for, and protecting even the weakest of people.”

For Sandusky’s victims, it is too late. Opportunities lost can never be regained. But, by God’s grace, this tragedy can open our eyes to the countless opportunities still before us. It is not too late for these people. We have our voice, we have Jesus’ compassion and, now, we have this lesson to spur us on. Today we see with the clarity of hindsight: Those unable to defend themselves must be defended by those who can. The right thing can be done. It should be done. We have no excuse.

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The Rev. Jonathan Lange lives in Evanston.


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