Commentary Magazine


Topic: Joe Paterno

Morality and the False God of Amateurism

The decision of the NCAA to impose draconian penalties on the Penn State University football program in reaction to the child sex abuse scandal is an attempt by the college sports authority to demonstrate the seriousness of what happened at the school. In that sense it is entirely appropriate and it is telling that the sanctions, which will reduce the former powerhouse to second-rate status for the immediate future, was meekly accepted by the university. The ruling, however, is interesting in that the NCAA’s policing of inter-collegiate athletics are, in this case, focused more on morality than nitpicking infractions of its arcane rules that seek to guard the false god of amateurism.

But while the sports authority is right to punish Penn State, the decision to vacate all of Penn State’s football victories since 1998, when evidence first appeared that the school was covering up the predatory behavior of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, strikes me as both inept and somewhat unjust.

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The decision of the NCAA to impose draconian penalties on the Penn State University football program in reaction to the child sex abuse scandal is an attempt by the college sports authority to demonstrate the seriousness of what happened at the school. In that sense it is entirely appropriate and it is telling that the sanctions, which will reduce the former powerhouse to second-rate status for the immediate future, was meekly accepted by the university. The ruling, however, is interesting in that the NCAA’s policing of inter-collegiate athletics are, in this case, focused more on morality than nitpicking infractions of its arcane rules that seek to guard the false god of amateurism.

But while the sports authority is right to punish Penn State, the decision to vacate all of Penn State’s football victories since 1998, when evidence first appeared that the school was covering up the predatory behavior of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, strikes me as both inept and somewhat unjust.

As those who follow college sports know, the NCAA’s focus in most of its investigations is to prevent schools from compensating athletes with anything but scholarships. The aim of this is, at least in theory, to prevent schools from gaining a competitive advantage on each other by bidding for athletes. Yet the hypocrisy of the exercise undermines the moralistic nature of the NCAA’s vengeful efforts to ensure that no college recruit receives a dime’s worth of benefits that is not strictly listed in the rules.

College football is a big business, and the universities that seek to play at the top level of the sport generate enormous sums of money for their exchequers. While star coaches, like Joe Paterno, are paid king’s ransoms, the athletes get nothing but a free education. That’s a valuable commodity, but because many who play are “student athletes” in name only they derive little benefit from it. Penn State prided itself on ensuring that its players actually went to school, a practice that set it apart from many other football powers and, ironically, led to the self-righteous attitude that motivated Paterno to see the football program’s good name as more important than the lives of Sandusky’s victims.

The attempt by the NCAA to monitor recruiting practices has a faux moral veneer. It does little to cover up the fact that college athletics is a bit of a sham. Most of the players are to one extent or another, “ringers” brought in to boost the team rather than genuine students. The games are fun and the bands, old school loyalties and rivalries bring enjoyment to the fans and alumni, but professional sports is a lot more honest.

Unfortunately, the NCAA’s censure of Penn State is likely a one-off event rather than the start of the trend. College sports might be better off if its governing body were to focus more on genuine questions of ethics than its often absurd recruiting rules. But the only reason it was able to impose these penalties without even the pretense of due process or appeal is that Penn State is so eager to take its medicine and move on that it didn’t give a thought to a challenge. That wouldn’t apply in less notorious cases, and the result would tie up the NCAA in legal fights for years. Even so, it was heartening to see a group better known for a pretense of morality than any actual defense of good behavior seeking to punish actual wrongdoing.

That said, it should be pointed out that the erasure of Penn State’s football wins is still absurd. The great thing about most sports is that the outcome is determined objectively by the skill of the participants. Penn State derived no competitive advantage from Paterno’s cover up of his longtime aide’s crimes. Those games were won or lost by what happened on the field. Taking the wins away does nothing to compensate Sandusky’s victims. If anything, it would make more sense to penalize Penn State’s wins prior to 1998, not after it, because that is when they had a presumably active pedophile taking an active part in their football program.

This is a clumsy add-on to an otherwise principled attempt to remind the American sports world that there is more to life than wins and losses of their favorite team. Let’s hope Paterno’s moral failure stands as an example that coaches at all levels of sports and those in positions of authority in other endeavors will always remember. In the meantime, there is every likelihood that the NCAA will soon return to its main job: propping up the pretense that amateurism is alive and well in college sports.

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Paterno and the Curse of Self-Righteousness

In the wake of the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Penn State University child abuse scandal, even some of the late Joe Paterno’s most vociferous defenders have fallen silent. Pete Wehner wrote compellingly on Friday about the way this terrible story illustrates not only that each individual must choose between good and evil but also what happens when institutions fail to take human failings into account. Yet as we read and listen to people struggling to accept the truth about Paterno (especially those in Pennsylvania for whom Paterno and Penn State football symbolized something more than just sports excellence), we are still left with an important question that we struggle to answer. How can a man who was widely believed to be a pillar of his community and force for integrity in his sport and his university have stood by and let unspeakable crimes be committed on his watch by one of his closest associates?

Paterno’s defenders point to his many good works and ask us to look at his life as a totality rather than solely through the lens of the crimes that for all intents and purposes he appears to have condoned. But it was this that led to his downfall. Like his legions of followers, he was so convinced of the value of all that he had done, that he seemed to have believed that preserving that legacy was more important than putting an end to the abuse being committed by his friend and colleague. Even more to the point, he was so convinced of his good intentions and the righteousness of his work that he came to see himself as above scrutiny. So while we may never know with certitude exactly what Paterno thought and why he acted as he did, this is actually a very recognizable pattern of behavior. We have no shortage of politicians who are similarly besotted with their own high opinion of themselves and willing to forgive any of their own personal failings because they think their cause is just.

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In the wake of the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Penn State University child abuse scandal, even some of the late Joe Paterno’s most vociferous defenders have fallen silent. Pete Wehner wrote compellingly on Friday about the way this terrible story illustrates not only that each individual must choose between good and evil but also what happens when institutions fail to take human failings into account. Yet as we read and listen to people struggling to accept the truth about Paterno (especially those in Pennsylvania for whom Paterno and Penn State football symbolized something more than just sports excellence), we are still left with an important question that we struggle to answer. How can a man who was widely believed to be a pillar of his community and force for integrity in his sport and his university have stood by and let unspeakable crimes be committed on his watch by one of his closest associates?

Paterno’s defenders point to his many good works and ask us to look at his life as a totality rather than solely through the lens of the crimes that for all intents and purposes he appears to have condoned. But it was this that led to his downfall. Like his legions of followers, he was so convinced of the value of all that he had done, that he seemed to have believed that preserving that legacy was more important than putting an end to the abuse being committed by his friend and colleague. Even more to the point, he was so convinced of his good intentions and the righteousness of his work that he came to see himself as above scrutiny. So while we may never know with certitude exactly what Paterno thought and why he acted as he did, this is actually a very recognizable pattern of behavior. We have no shortage of politicians who are similarly besotted with their own high opinion of themselves and willing to forgive any of their own personal failings because they think their cause is just.

Self-image is often decisive in determining our behavior. If we see ourselves as working on behalf of a good cause, that makes it easier to condone misbehavior we think is not that important in the big picture. But while it is possible to make a case that defending one’s country in wartime can require lying, as well as all sorts of things we would label crimes in other contexts, the problem is leaders often conflate their careers with that of the fate of civilization.

In my lifetime, I have seen presidents of the United States who believed the preservation of their administrations was more important than telling the truth about either political dirty tricks or personal misbehavior. In each case, we can tell ourselves that neither the Watergate break-in nor the Monica Lewinsky affair was as bad as Jerry Sandusky’s raping children, and we’d be right. Indeed, there is no comparison between these incidents.

But that should only heighten our disgust with Paterno. In his case, his conduct appears to have been based on the idea that a football program’s good name and the prestige of a university was more valuable than the lives of children. Rather than allowing his achievements to overshadow his failings, we must understand that his complicity in Sandusky’s ability to go on abusing kids was rooted in those accomplishments. Paterno should stand as a warning to anyone in a position of authority that their self-image as good guys can never justify cutting moral corners.

We may never be able to fully understand the evil of Sandusky or the moral blindness of Paterno. But the pattern here is not all that unique. The willingness of leaders to believe their good works are so important that nothing — even the truth about their personal conduct or those of their associates — can be allowed to tarnish them is a standing invitation to wrongdoing.

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Penn State’s Shift Toward Evil

During the last half-century, you’d be hard-pressed to find many programs in college football that were more respected than Penn State or a coach who was more revered than Joe Paterno. But all that they had achieved now lies in ashes. To understand why, one need only read the results of this investigation into Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal.

The seven-month investigation,  based on 430 interviews and some 3.5 million documents, excoriates the university’s leadership – including then-Head Coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Vice President Gary Schultz – for covering up allegations of sexual abuse by Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. (Last month Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 sex abuse counts.) This happened in part because they were concerned about negative publicity.

“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” said former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who led the investigation. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.” The report highlights a “striking lack of empathy” for the victims. And the investigation shows that Paterno, who died in January, was an integral part of an “active decision to conceal.” It appears as if the former coach of the Nittany Lions not only lied to reporters but to a grand jury as well. (Paterno insisted he had no knowledge of a 1998 police inquiry into child molestation accusations against Sandusky, his assistant coach.)

The report is a horrifying account of individual and institutional failure, based in part on a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus.”

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During the last half-century, you’d be hard-pressed to find many programs in college football that were more respected than Penn State or a coach who was more revered than Joe Paterno. But all that they had achieved now lies in ashes. To understand why, one need only read the results of this investigation into Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal.

The seven-month investigation,  based on 430 interviews and some 3.5 million documents, excoriates the university’s leadership – including then-Head Coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Vice President Gary Schultz – for covering up allegations of sexual abuse by Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. (Last month Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 sex abuse counts.) This happened in part because they were concerned about negative publicity.

“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” said former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who led the investigation. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.” The report highlights a “striking lack of empathy” for the victims. And the investigation shows that Paterno, who died in January, was an integral part of an “active decision to conceal.” It appears as if the former coach of the Nittany Lions not only lied to reporters but to a grand jury as well. (Paterno insisted he had no knowledge of a 1998 police inquiry into child molestation accusations against Sandusky, his assistant coach.)

The report is a horrifying account of individual and institutional failure, based in part on a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus.”

Consider just one incident. In 2000, a janitor at the football building saw Sandusky assaulting a boy in the showers. According to Freeh, “The janitor who observed it says it’s the worst thing he ever saw. He’s a Korean War veteran. … He spoke to the other janitors. They were awed and shocked by it. But, what did they do? They said they can’t report this because they’d be fired. They were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. If that’s the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top.”

What appears to have happened is that otherwise good men, when confronted with evidence that they had a monster in their midst, decided to cover up the crimes in hopes of protecting their reputations and those of their university. That decision began a chain of events that made them complicit in unspeakable acts.

This is not the first time individuals and institutions have turned a blind eye toward, and then become complicit in, malevolence. It occurred in the Catholic Church as well, as this 2004 report showed. The reasons such things happen are extremely complicated. It starts, I suppose, with — to invoke a word that is increasingly out of fashion these days — sin, which touches all of us to one degree or another. Human beings are a mixture of virtue and vice, of nobility and corruption, of good intentions and depraved motivations. Within every person lies competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents. It was Solzhenitsyn, in reflecting on his time in the Gulag, who wrote:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

The challenge of civilizations has been to set up institutional arrangements that take into account the human condition and channel it in ways that encourage the good and place a check on evil. What this means is that in our universities, in our churches, and in our political systems – in virtually every human institution – we need checks and balances. We need accountability. And we need transparency. The concentration of power — when combined with pride, arrogance, ambition, and fear — can lead even impressive people to act in unjust and repellant ways.

What happened at Penn State was a massive institutional failure combined with massive personal failures. In the process, crimes were committed. Reputations were destroyed. A university was shamed. And worst of all, children were abused and scarred for life.

This is not a new story, or even the worst story we have seen. But it is sickening enough. At Penn State, the line through the human heart shifted dramatically in the direction of evil.

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