This famous line in my title comes from the infamous Black Sox baseball scandal that occurred early in the twentieth century. As the story goes a young lad, who loved “Shoeless Joe” Jackson of the Chicago White Sox, could not believe his hero has cheated. In the movie version of “Eight Men Out” the boy plaintively said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”
That’s about how I felt last week as we watched the Joe Paterno story unfold through every news medium possible. In this case even a sports story became a national tragedy. Not only did the actions of a famous coach (or his non-action in this sad case) make global news but it galvanized a whole new conversation about sex abuse. And well it should. But how could Joe Paterno, a decent and good man by every account, have failed to deal with this tragedy and thus allowed children to be molested by a predator? How could he not report this crime when he had clear eyewitness information about Jerry Sanduksy’s behavior? We will not know for sure until we hear from Joe. And we may not hear from him for days if the attorney he has hired tells him to remain silent. That is truly sad because I want to think the best about Joe. I also want to grasp how he could have failed to do what was obviously the right thing to do.
One of my favorite opinion writers, the conservative Ross Douthat of the New York Times, concluded in a brilliant article he penned last week:
It was precisely because Joe Paterno had done so much good for so long that he could do the unthinkable, and let an alleged child rapist continue to walk free in Penn State’s Happy Valley. Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. . . . But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.
For now I believe Douthat has explained Joe’s behavior as well as anyone I’ve read or heard. A good man, but a man just like you and me, had high responsibility and was always on his guard in the big moments he faced. The danger is that he, and we too, could let down our guard and the most basic ones can slip away. The Song of Solomon 2:15 says: “Take us the foxes, THE LITTLE FOXES, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” In Joe’s case it seems that what appeared like “little foxes” were much bigger than he knew and his judgment was seriously impaired. The results are tragic.