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Why Penn State’s NCAA Penalty Hits Us So Viscerally

{RJW Note: I appreciate everyone’s patience and expressed concern over the last several months as I took a much needed writing sabbatical. There is much about which to write as my heart has refilled.}

Joshua 7 tells the story of Achan, who kept some of the treasures of Jericho in direct violation of God’s command. It is not clear how many knew of it, but his disobedience caused Israel to be defeated when it attacked a small hamlet. When confronted by Joshua and the elders, he readily confessed. His punishment was not only loss of the treasure, but to be stoned along with his sons, daughters, and all of his livestock. Finally, their bodies, the treasure and all of his possessions were burned and buried.

One man’s “little” private sin impacted an entire nation, before they even knew of it. Once they found out, he was tried and convicted, with a punishment that spread beyond his own complete ruin, to that of his entire family, and innocent livestock. Scripture does not indicate if his family knew of his theft or not, so I will not make an argument from silence.

The corporate impact of Achan’s sin was the topic of Sunday’s sermon at church. As I and many in the nation wrestled this week with the NCAA’s punishment of Penn State for the coverup of Coach Sandusky’s pedophilia, the similarities to Achan kept resonating in my spirit.

A principle in Scripture is the longer sin occurs and is hidden, the deeper and more far-reaching the consequences. Achan’s sin was discovered relatively quickly whereas Sandusky’s lasted over a decade. Yet both devastated a nation, not just the immediate victims.

Many have complained that the penalties are too harsh—they unnecessarily punish the students, alumni, players, and even the Paterno family. I feel terrible for each of these groups, especially the players, the Paternos, and also the Sandusky family. Watching JoePat’s statue come down was difficult, and I’ve never even been to Happy Valley. The scandal is devastating to one of the most sterling reputations in our nation. The sanctions rub salt and vinegar into still bleeding wounds.

Yet, it cannot be any other way. Any human institution is very much a single organism, and when an organism is injured, it impacts then entire organism, not merely the injury site. The corruption in the leadership at Penn State requires major surgery. Major surgery is extremely traumatic on the entire body, yet is necessary for its ultimate recovery and health. During that recovery, the body must receive extra-ordinary care and nurture, from both itself and those caring for it. As a nation, we must do the same for Penn State. They need to be comforted and helped during their recovery from the hurt and the needed excision of the infection. None more so than the boys abused.

Reconciliation is the heart of the Gospel, not just because of our separation from God, but because of our mutual estrangements as the human family. Reconciliation is not the removal of the injury, but its healing. There is a profound difference between the two. The scars that remain after healing can actually be a sign of triumph, of health demonstrated by the overcoming of injury.

There are no winners in the Sandusky scandal. We all have lost much that is good and precious. Righteousness is demanded by God because it is the only way for the human species to be truly healthy. When we turn blind eyes to sin, it is the spiritual equivalent to going on a bender, yet we are surprised when we get sick and wonder why. Charity calls this trait immaturity. Reality calls it foolishness.

Yet, if foolishness is transformed to wisdom, immaturity becomes maturity. We as a human organism have descended into the abyss of spiritual alcoholism, calling evil good and good “intolerant.” Yet we agree pedophilia is akin to drunk driving, an absolute evil. This is the beginning of admitting we have a problem. Woe to us if we stop there.

God’s righteousness is sobriety. Confession and repentance dry us out and clear our minds. We cannot do it on our own. That is exactly why Christ came. We would do well to avail ourselves of such mighty help, and well to help each other by calling spades, showing tough love, while simultaneously comforting through the tears and pain.

May the Lord bless Penn State.



  1. Tough love is what Jesus came to give. Very tough for Him, very hard for us to admit we need. I appreciate these insights. Its only with Christ that reconciliation can actually happen after the devastation from sin. I am also encouraged by your Pastor who taught on Achan at this time. Puts me in mind of Jeremiah's cry to the priests of his day. "Why do you heal the wounds of my people superficially?" Is there NO balm in Gilead, IS there NO GREAT PHYSICIAN there? Deep cleansing brings deep healing. We long for this, but do we have the courage to step up to it? Pray for our Pastors to be this bold.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Ginny! Learning how to both give and receive tough love is a difficult challenge. In our compassion we itch to step in and relieve suffering due to the consequences of sin, and this is the exact wrong thing to do. It is often a sign of our own personal weakness, our inability to withstand discomfort, when we step in prematurely to circumvent the maturing effects of self-induced suffering in others.

      In the Penn State case, the suffering of those who participated and covered up for the abuse needs to have its full effect. For the students and for the families of the guilty, we need to offer compassion as they suffer under the shadow of the scandal. I implore all those who meet the Lions on the gridiron and elsewhere to show this compassion with class and sportsmanship.