PSU scandal and Coach Paterno: When good people do the wrong thing

In the fallout of the extensive and detailed grand jury allegations of child abuse against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, famed Head Coach Joe Paterno has come under fire. Why? No one has accused Paterno of breaking the law, but there’s a palpable sense of betrayal of the coach’s famously unshakable integrity.

When an eyewitness went to him with an allegation of abuse, Paterno did the bare minimum. He reported the allegation to university administrators, who were then legally responsible for going to the police (which they didn’t do). But real integrity means doing more than the bare minimum. Every time.

The result of Paterno doing the bare minimum meant that children continued to be abused for 10 more years.

Drew Magary of Deadspin has put words on the screen that are more thought-provoking than any of the many others on this topic that we’ve read today:

This whole PSU thing is less an indictment of college football than it is an indictment of all entrenched adult institutions. From big-time college football to the Catholic church to Wall Street to government agencies, you’ll find that people almost always choose to cover their [a–] and protect their jobs (and friends) rather than do the right thing.

Blowing the whistle is the exception to the rule. The fact that Paterno, deemed by many to be the Gold Standard for how a football coach ought to conduct himself, isn’t immune to it should tell you something. Because I’m fairly certain that despite all this, Paterno remains a good and decent person.

Sandusky was Paterno’s colleague (and one would assume friend) for over three decades. So imagine someone coming up to you and telling you that your friend of 30 years was raping a kid in the shower. Would you believe it? Would you want to believe it? Probably not the first time you hear it. Would you go to the police? What if the grad assistant was wrong and your friend’s life is ruined because of a misunderstanding? You might not even want to explore the matter further because you can’t tolerate the idea of someone you trusted doing such monstrous things. I think the reason Paterno went to his AD and didn’t go to the cops is because it provided him with the chance to have it both ways. This way, he was able to “report” it, without having to be the person who takes the significantly braver step of actually calling the police. Problem solved. Conscience cleared.

That a great deal of people chose to do nothing after that is proof of how easily a cover-up can spontaneously take root and linger. We’d all like to think we’d do the noble thing when faced with such a seemingly obvious choice. The truth is, we might not.

Let’s remember Paterno’s mistake next time we’re faced with making a decision between a choice that is the bare minimum and the choice that is personally expensive, but ethically imperative. Loyalty to an institution, no matter how august, is a hollow value, compared to fairness, responsibility, and exposing gross wrong-doing and abuse.

Also see Michael Josephson’s commentaries about the PSU scandal:

2 comments for “PSU scandal and Coach Paterno: When good people do the wrong thing

  1. Bob
    November 11, 2011 at 6:29 am

    It takes courage to do the right thing. Joe has demonstrated courage time and time again throughout his career, but when he was confronted with perhaps the most important decision of his life, his courage failed him. The person who was a role model for millions has disappointed everyone, to at least a degree. The situation at PSU has cast a pall over the country, regardless of whether or not you are a sports fan.

  2. Jan
    November 12, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Normally I would use empathy, compassion and understanding to decide how I felt about the PSU incident, but from the perspective of a parent, who has first hand understanding of the delicate nature of the developing child, I am hopeful that this will open the discussion that has been overdue ever since we learned, as a country, that if even those working in God’s name could cross tabu boundaries with innocent children and allow it because the children had no protection in place, a corporate institution has an equally easy time with looking the other way and hoping it to all go away. Those deaf children that were being repeatedly abused (if they are still alive) are suffering in a way that JoePa cannot even conceive of.

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