Last month I introduced the topic of why people of integrity sometimes do the wrong thing (or fail to do the right thing). I used as an example famed football coach Joe Paterno. After he was excoriated last week in the Freeh report on the PSU/Sandusky scandal, the late coach’s family questioned how any “sane adult” could cover up for a child molester. Indeed. Ignorance, denial, misplaced loyalty, short-term thinking, and perceived helplessness could have all conspired in his failure. In my earlier post I discussed ignorance. Today I’ll address the others and throw in two more hypotheses as a bonus.
In this case, denial doesn’t mean denying culpability in an event. It refers to the defense mechanism wherein something is so difficult to comprehend that the individual refuses to accept the reality, even in light of overwhelming evidence. Finding that an assistant you trusted for over thirty years was using your workplace to seduce and sodomize boys could certainly qualify as information too painful for Paterno to bear.
Loyalty is a great quality. It means we stick by those we care about, not just in the good times, but in the bad times, too. We may become dedicated to institutions as well as to individuals. Unfortunately, people are sometimes loyal well past the point of reason, twisting the virtue into a vice. Some remain loyal to those who misuse and abuse them. Others are so blinded by their loyalty that they cannot see the failures and fallibilities of the organization or the person they love. They double down on their dedication in the face of “attacks” from outsiders. Perhaps Joe Paterno’s devotion to Penn State or to his longtime friend distorted his judgment. His loyalty to those he knew (Sandusky, the football team, the University) was more powerful than his responsibility to nameless, faceless kids abused under his watch.
In times of emergency it is easy to focus on immediate needs at the risk of long term implications. This is even more likely when high stress and strong emotions are involved. Scandals are usually made worse by the efforts to make them go away through lies, evasions, blame, withholding information, destroying evidence, and circling the wagons among a trusted few individuals. Such efforts to mitigate the damage preclude clear thinking, perspective taking, and consideration of the “what-ifs” that lead to rational, long-term planning. Amid the decision to close an investigation against Sandusky in 1998 without charges, PSU VP Gary Shultz asked if Sandusky’s behavior was the “opening of Pandora’s box”. In retrospect, it’s unfortunate that Shultz’s big-picture “what if” question didn’t have more influence on the decision makers.
A common refrain in many of my moral courage workshops is that would-be whistleblowers fail to speak up because they think it is futile to do so. They feel powerless over longstanding corruption, entrenched interests, or people higher than them on the org chart. The Freeh investigation identified this apprehension on the part of janitor Jim Calhoun who feared losing his job if he reported observing a Sandusky sexual assault. Since the person he feared was Joe Paterno himself, it’s unlikely that Paterno was stymied by perceived helplessness. I’d suggest the coach was thwarted by the inverse—perceptions of power.
People who have possessed great power-- financial, political, social, organizational etc. are used to exercising it to meet their personal and professional ends. The risk is that it can create an illusion that the power is sufficient to contain all forms of human behavior or all types of institutional crises. Over the years Joe Paterno was able to inspire thousands of young men, vanquish competitors, evade PSU student disciplinary processes, and refuse entreaties from the University President that he resign. Perhaps these and other successes led him to believe he could compel Jerry Sandusky to cease his abusive ways or that he could contain damaging revelations. If the Freeh report is to be believed, Paterno and other PSU leaders were powerful enough to suppress disclosures about Sandusky’s abuse for over 12 years. But power has its limits. Eventually Victim 1’s mother was able to ignite the investigation that brought the whole house down.
Like denial, rationalization is a defense mechanism. In this case, justification is used to tolerate (or even glorify) unacceptable feelings or actions. In the Penn State case, the failure to act on Sandusky’s behavior may have been justified by contending that it was “more humane” not to report him, that it would protect the school or the football program, even that it would spare the victims the shame of investigations and testimony. Another pernicious rationalization employed by otherwise “good” people is that a bad act isn’t of the magnitude to undo their overall virtuous self-image. (For more on this principle, see research by Dan Ariely in his book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty).
So, why might a sane adult, widely believed to be a person of integrity, fail so badly? Clearly there are plenty of hypotheses. We must also consider the possibility that sometimes people just aren’t as good as they (or their PR machines) portray them to be. The “dark side’ of Joe Paterno is revealed in Vicky Triponey’s accounts of his treatment of her while she was a VP at Penn State. Maybe this “dark side” is just the occasional lapse of an otherwise exceptional human, or maybe it is really the defining characteristic of that person. Either way, we’re wise to follow the caution offered in Samuel Johnson’s novel, Rasselas, which is, ironically, set in The Happy Valley. "Be not too hasty ... to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality; they discourse like angels, but they live like men."