Commentary Magazine


Topic: Penn State scandal

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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