In my office I have a Penn State hat signed by the school’s famed late coach, Joe Paterno. My parents gave it to me, having received it at a corporate leadership conference at which JoePa was a featured speaker. His topic was integrity, and for many he epitomized the concept. The Penn State football uniforms were decidedly old school – no player names on the back, no decals on the helmets signifying interceptions, hits, or other performance targets. The coach disdained post-play showboating by team members – why should a player celebrate something he was supposed to have been doing in the first place? Devout Catholics, Paterno and his wife lived simply and behaved humbly. They contributed to the well-being of the community and University, co-chairing the capital campaign for a new library and donating a million dollars for a new hospital wing. Graduation rates of football players under Paterno were above the national average and he was known as a mentor who emphasized citizenship and integrity among his players. His abrupt firing in the wake of the Sandusky sex abuse scandal led to student revolt and enduring efforts to clear his name.
How can someone so roundly recognized as a person of integrity fail so spectacularly? And, if it can happen to him, can it happen to any of us?
Although the answers are speculative, they are worth considering. Good people fail because they aren’t as good as their image suggests. They also fail because of ignorance, denial, misplaced loyalty, short-term thinking, and perceived helplessness. I’ll address these features in this and upcoming blogs. First, some caveats: 1) my closest connection to Joe Paterno is the hat in my office, so I rely on the reports of others for insight into the man and his actions. Those sources may or may not be honest and valid, though I do the best I can to weed out overly biased accounts in either direction. 2) In the big scheme of the Penn State/Second Mile scandal, Joe Paterno is a very minor character (albeit the best known). Jerry Sandusky has been convicted on 45 counts of crimes against children, two PSU officials are charged with perjury, civil suits are lining up on behalf of victims, and investigations are underway concerning the two organizations involved. There are plenty of failures worth examining, and I likely will do so as the cases unfold. For now, though, I will focus on Paterno, whose outcome was so greatly at odds with his image. Let’s start with a recap of the case.
On February 9, 2001, assistant coach Mike McQueary went to Paterno’s home and revealed that he had observed sexual abuse of a youngster by Sandusky in Penn State facilities the evening before. (The exact language McQueary used is in contention, with some suggesting that he wasn’t explicit in his explanation to his elderly mentor, and others maintaining that the message was sufficiently clear). Paterno reported it to his supervisor, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and appeared to leave it in his hands. Ultimately, with the consent of the University President, the leaders merely forbade Sandusky future access to PSU facilities. In November, 2012, grand jury findings alleged years of sexual abuse by Sandusky, including at least four cases that occurred following the 2001 case. Joe Paterno told the PSU Board that he would resign at the end of the football season but was fired immediately, as was PSU President Graham Spanier.
At least part of the continuing outrage at Paterno’s termination is based on the belief that he was made the scapegoat for the failings of his superiors. Many contend that he did what was right in reporting it and had no legal or organizational responsibility to pursue it further. Others feel he had a moral responsibility to assure that proper steps were taken, in light of his power and position and the victimization of vulnerable youths. The Coach himself said in November, "This is a tragedy". "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." Recent developments in the case suggest that Paterno did continue to be involved beyond his initial report to Curley, and that his actions contributed to the cover-up. Reports released yesterday reveal that administrators initially agreed upon a three-step remedy to the assault, including confronting Sandusky and banning him from campus, notifying The Second Mile charity, and reporting the case to child welfare authorities. Following a meeting with Paterno, the third step of the plan was dropped. The leaders suggested they would encourage Sandusky to get professional help and that this would constitute “a more humane and upfront way to handle” it.
Whether the errors were in what he did or what he failed to do, the roots of Paterno’s lapse of integrity are germane to all of us. For starters, perhaps he could have done better if he had known more.
Failure of Knowledge
Though school administrators and teachers are mandated reporters in Pennsylvania, college coaches are not. Nevertheless, anyone is entitled to report their suspicions of abuse or neglect to child protective services. Child abuse was probably not a common part of Joe Paterno’s lexicon or life experience. The coach admits as much in a January 2012 interview with The Washington Post. “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
Despite the widespread publicity about pedophilia in the Catholic Church, the notion of sodomy was even more difficult for the 85 year old to reckon with. In addressing the ambiguity over McQueary’s report to him, he told the Post, “You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”
In addition to the lack of knowledge about procedures for addressing abuse and the harm such abuse causes victims, Coach Paterno and the PSU administrators also appear to have lacked knowledge of the characteristics of pedophilia. A stern talking to or a close call with reporting is insufficient to curb the assaults. Sandusky’s continued exploitation of youth following the 1998 investigation serves as evidence of that.
There are many remedies for failures of knowledge: to be aware, to learn more, to avoid willful ignorance, and to seek out those who can educate us when we ourselves lack the knowledge to act.
Coming up in the next blog, the powerful combination of denial and loyalty.