Alumni support of Paterno damages Penn State's reputation

In any functioning community there are three different levels of responsibility, namely legal, ethical, and moral. The least of these is our responsibilities as defined by local, state, and federal law. That former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno met this lowest of expectations is not in dispute – Sandusky’s prosecutors have explicitly stated that Paterno met the legal requirements of reporting child sexual abuse to his superiors at Penn State. But when the police were not notified, when Sandusky was not shut out of the athletic facilities, why did Paterno not rise to meet his ethical responsibility as an authority figure, or his moral responsibility to report the abuse to the police? I don’t know, and after Paterno’s interview, I’m not entirely sure that he knows either.

Regardless of Paterno’s reasons, it was his failure to meet his higher responsibilities that resulted in the Penn State Board of Trustees voting unanimously to fire Paterno as head coach of the Nittany Lions. The Trustees are charged with guaranteeing the reputation of the university, and as an alumnus (1995, BSEE), I applaud them for having the courage to fire a Penn State icon.

But I don’t understand why so few of my fellow Penn State alumni grasp that firing Paterno was necessary. NPR ran a story about how the new Penn State president, Rodney Erickson, was being grilled by PSU alumni about why Paterno was fired. In a Philadelphia Inquirer article, reporter Frank Fitzpatrick wrote of the town hall meetings that Paterno’s supporters insist that Paterno has zero culpability for the Sandusky affair. According to the Associated Press, the Pittsburgh town hall erupted in the loudest applause after an alumnus called for the mass resignation of the entire Board of Trustees because they fired Paterno.

There is a great deal more to Penn State than football, and that’s a point that most of the alumni described in the news reports above don’t seem to understand. Yes, I attended and enjoyed home games myself, but it was the relationships, personal development, and education that define my time at Penn State, not my cheers from the student section of Beaver Stadium. Today there are exactly two things that Penn State football did for me – it made pro football seem so boring that I don’t bother watching pro ball any more, and it made me despise Miami’s and Nebraska’s football teams. Compared to the four years I spent learning, working, and living at Penn State, a few hours every other weekend during football season is nothing.

According to a report by Mark Viera of the NYTimes, one of the tensest moments in an Erickson town hall came when Matthew Kalafat (1991) got up to tell the rest of his fellow alumni that “Paterno was not a victim and that not all alumni were upset by his firing.” Add my name to Kalafat’s.

32 men and women on the Board of Trustees understood this simplest of concepts – that we, as human beings, have moral and ethical duties to do more than what mere law requires of us. Paterno clearly failed in those very moral and ethical duties. Penn State’s alumni need to come to understand this as well before they damage the very reputation that the Board worked so hard to protect.

27 replies »

  1. More alums of more schools need to think this way. Of course, if they did, we wouldn’t have big money football in universities.

    Which I think would be a great thing.

  2. I have a life partner who was an athlete at Penn State and sported a Joe Paterno mug for many years. A devoted fan for sure. No problem understanding why Joe had to go, however. As a bystander who has no skin in this game, you might be surprised at my response. Neither accepting or condoning, I do understand and empathize that Joe is a relic of the recent past, like it or not.

    The author of this article is a learned and provocative expert on generational differences. He forgets the era from which Joe Paterno enters the discussion…”The Silent Generation.”

    The phrase gained notoriety after William Manchester’s comment that the members of this generation were “withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent.” Although knowledgeable, they are/were capable of shutting out the “dirty little secrets” around them. That is not to dismiss the fact that baby boomers could sometimes embrace that undeniable quality of ignorance being blissful.

    Although many of you might judge Joe Paterno’s comments or behaviors, I have no doubt he is telling the truth as he sees it. Many of you have baby boomer parents, so you are not aware of the mental compartmentalization of the ‘Silent Ones,’ but I know it well, having parents from that era. They just simply had nothing to do with things they either couldn’t understand, or wouldn’t understand because they were unconscionable acts.

    Joe Paterno came from an era of ‘rules to live by.’ We have praised him for creating rules of behavior that have been lost in collegiate and professional sports, yet chastise him for those rules when they don’t work. He learned to live by a code of honor. That includes allowing those of superior rank to set the rules. That awareness came from parents who proudly walked away from World War I and II.

    Joe literally gave his superior control of the outcome. In turn, that superior made a grave error and protected Joe’s program versus protecting children, whether knowingly or unknowingly by Joe. We will never know the reality of it. I can assure you that baby boomer, Sandusky knew Joe’s proclivity, and ran his scam under the radar of a trusting and blind leader.

    I don’t think it would have ever occurred to Joe Paterno to have called the police, or to expose the sins of his underlings, because it was one of those sins of omission. We don’t talk about it and hope it will go away. If we don’t acknowledge it, maybe it isn’t real. I believe him when he said he had no idea what to do, so he followed protocol. That was the way of “The Silent Generation.”

    Although I would have hoped for better, I have also been to Happy Valley. It is a very easy place for a generational relic to live the out of era life he displays. Joe Paterno was a faithful Catholic man who followed his father’s guidance to live a stellar life, be a good father and to make a living mark. Unfortunately, he outstayed his welcome in a generation who won’t remember the good and will cling to the awful and disgraceful. The judgmental hypocrisy of Gen X and Y’s is staggering.

    There are things to learn in every generation. In this case, in the book, ‘Generations,’ William Strauss and Neil Howe define this generation as “an Artist/Adaptive generation.” An Artist (or Adaptive) generation is born during a crisis, spends its rising adult years in a new high, spends midlife in an awakening, and spends old age in an unraveling.

    I think what we have observed is an unraveling of untold proportions. I still remember the good things, Joe…I am a baby boomer and I think a new chapter can come from this.

    • Hi Marti. Nice analysis. I do want to react to your smack at Gen Xers, though. While certainly we’re a generation with flaws (you and I have talked about these in the past and you know I don’t give my cohort a pass on anything), I don’t see what X is guilty of here. Your assessment of the Silents is apt, but if anything I think I’d read this assessment as an explanation of why Paterno was wrong.

      Which means, I imagine, that many of my fellow Xers would agree with you, except we’d not be terribly sure how our response to the situation at PSU earned us any criticism for hypocrisy.

  3. Kudos to Marti Smith. Her “letter to the editor” reaction piece was more thought-provoking and insightful than the original article.

  4. I’m with Sam here – how does this indicate hypocrisy, either by me personally or by my fellow Xers?

    And I fail to see how Paterno’s generation excuses his lapse of judgement and failure in his duties here. Generational traits may explain why something happened, but that doesn’t excuse them or eliminate an individual’s personal responsibility.

  5. I think firing Paterno did Penn State far more harm than good. One of worst things it did was show the Board did not care about Sandusky’s victims. They were not contacted, via their lawyers, to ask their opinion on whether Paterno should be fired. Victim 1 was bullied out of his high school because he was blamed for getting Paterno fired.

    Firing Paterno also made the scandal about him and not about Sandusky. Why didn’t the Board revoke Sandusky’s emeritus status?

    The firing was also based on incomplete and misleading information. The Grand Jury report greatly exaggerated McQueary’s testimony with incendiary terms like “anal rape” that he never said. McQueary only actually saw Sandusky bear-hugging a boy from behind. He only suspected it may have been sexual.

    Too, the boy with Sandusky had not even been identified when Paterno was fired and has yet to confirm McQueary’s suspicion’s that there was sexual contact.

    The Board fired no one else, despite the gross failure of the University Police to inform the Board of Sandusky molesting 2 boys in the campus showers in 1998 and to take steps to prevent Sandusky from doing it again.

    • Um, TimB, the board also fired the president of the university. And the question has to be asked whether or not the Board has the authority to fire University Police officers – I suspect not.

      And just because the Board hasn’t fired everyone doesn’t mean that there won’t be more firings. Nor does it change the fact that Paterno failed in his moral and ethical responsibilities.

      And I don’t see how the Board’s firing of Paterno indicates that the Board doesn’t care about the victims – that strikes me as a major non sequitur.

      There may well be legal, contractual reasons why Sandusky’s emeritus status hasn’t been revoked, just as there could be legal, contractual reasons why Penn State is paying the legal costs for Tim Curley and Gary Shultz, who were arrested while they were still PSU employees.

      Sometimes legally binding contracts produce weird situations where the people who haven’t been arrested are fired while the people who have been arrested are contractually protected from being fired until after the court case. Our system works that way some times.

  6. Wait, so because Joe Paterno was a member of the Silent Generation, he’s not culpable for crimes committed by the people he hired, on the grounds of the organization that he led, even though he knew about them? And he did know about them. The university knew well enough to cut Sandusky loose, but Joe allowed him to keep coming on campus and bring “his” kids to the PSU football facilities.

    Because of the day Paterno was born, he’s allowed to tell his superiors that a crime has been committed on campus, one that may be ongoing, and then that’s it. He’s fulfilled his duty.

    Obviously, Paterno’s superiors in this whole, squalid affair should be fired too. But the idea that Marti puts forth and that apparently serves as a nice rationalization for other PSU alumni to defend Paterno is laughable.

    I’ve felt that the internet jokes calling it Pedo Statue University are unfair … even if it is funny as hell. I’m done with that. It’s not only funny, but with alumi and supporters like Marti, it’s accurate.

    The only out here is that if Paterno had a functioning moral code, he would have resigned immediately to save the university from firing him. Of course, that behavior would have indicated that he loved the university and the football program more than he loved himself, the same way that actually doing something about the child rape and keeping his pedophile friend off campus would have indicated that he put the university above his own ego.

    And, hey, it probably would have saved the Pedo State University’s football program from becoming the smoking crater that it is today. On the plus side, the mascot already looks a little like the Pedo Bear, so PSU has that going for it.

  7. For the record, it is redundant to state that there are “three different levels of responsibility, namely legal, ethical, and moral.” Ethics and morality are just two terms that refer to the same concept — the former is derived from the Greek and the latter from the Latin. To say that they are two different levels of responsibility in communal life is like saying that Chik-fil-a serves two kinds of bird: poultry and chicken.

    • Disagree completely. In our current context, ethics have come to signify a social or professional code. Morality is religious or spiritual in nature.

  8. Sam….no worries. Opinions are just that. As a trained psychologist I tend toward wanting to see things from all sides. None of us has all the information. I bow to your knowledge of X’ers, although I am watching our culture rush to judgment on all sorts of topics. X’ers are much more accepting of others in general, but technology has made it possible to react on a screen without intellectually fully exploring topics. That is why I am impressed with S&R writers. They do take time to think before they throw up on a page. The original article was thought provoking, indeed.

    • Marti – Ah. Yeah, I’d agree with you wholeheartedly on the “technology” issue. In fact, I’ve come to believe it’s even worse than you’re suggesting and have been thinking about a post or a series on the ways in which social media are ripping at the fabric of society in terrible ways.

  9. Lex…if you go back, I am not condoning anything. I take no sides on the Paterno guilt. I am merely explaining the behavior. Joe came from a time where social mores were different. I am only explaining it from where I think the man lives. He didn’t knowingly create an environment to harm these boys….at least I don’t think he did. My real point, however vague, is that we all live in a time of our generation. As we move into new social mores we have a responsibility to understand it. Joe was a product of his generation, and his environment allowed him to stay there….until they didn’t. He had an opportunity to gracefully retire a few years ago. When he made a decision to stay he bought into all that goes with it. In fact, I am actually saying I know he has responsibility, but as a boomer, I am hopeful we can use all of this to make things better. To merely judge leaves things broken. We have become so judgmental we don’t get the best and brightest to run for political office, take leadership roles in education, nor create transparency in daily life My apologies…I, too judged the X’ers. Sam has taught me how insidious our generational mores are, and I am concerned we have a melting pot that wants to shoot the messenger instead of finding common ground to make more intellectual and heartfelt solutions.

  10. Samuel Smith — I’m curious as to your “Disagree completely” remark. Are you disagreeing with the etymological point that I made about “ethikos” and “moralia”? If so, I can assure you that reference to the relevant Greek & Latin dictionaries will demonstrate my point.

    If you are simply stating an opinion about the nature of ethics and morality – the one as social/professional and the other as religious/spiritual – then I am curious as to whether you just made that up on the spot or whether you’ve actually got something to back it up. The concept to which both terms point is a philosophical one that I do not believe admits of the kind of false dichotomy you are trying to assert.

    • I’m not a Greek scholar, but my comment very accurately reflects the usage of the terms in the contemporary context. Many prominent ethical codes have very little to do with morality, either implicit or explicit. Legal ethics come to mind, as does something like the Society of Professional Journalists code. It’s always nice when ethics and morality overlap in meaningful ways, but Brian’s usage of the terms was technically correct.

  11. I’m afraid you are begging the question. Does your comment very accurately reflect usage in the contemporary context? That’s what I’m driving at. To play off your example, the morals of the legal profession are synonymous with that profession’s ethical code. That, my dear interlocutor, is what I meant when I used my fast food analogy in the original comment.

    To assert that something is “technically” correct is a greater claim that can be substantiated by the opining nature of your comments to this point. A technical point, in the proper sense, is what I was making both with reference to word etymology and to those particular words as synonyms that refer to a category of philosophy. Simply asserting something to be the case and then defending the assertion by making it again in a slightly different way does not a compelling argument make.

    • Andrew, according to the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary, “moral” and “ethic” are synonyms of each other. So in that sense, you are correct. However, I was using the terms as Sam stated – ethics as a professional code of conduct and behavior vs morals as a religiously/spiritually-derived (think 10 Commandments or humanism) code of conduct. A little poking around online indicated that many people do use them as synonyms, as you suggest, but that my differentiation between the two is hardly unique or incorrect:,,,

      It’s easy to imagine cases where morality disallows one behavior while professional ethics permits it. As an example, a journalist who believes in protecting his or her source according to press protections in the U.S. might also hold a “render unto Ceasar” approach in deferring to government authority in other areas. Similarly, a Christian police officer who legally shoots and kills a crime suspect has broken the commandment against murder but has not only met his legal responsibilities, but has also met his professional ethical responsibility. I’m sure that we could come up with examples like this all day.

      The distinction I made is not necessary, but it’s neither unusual nor incorrect.

      • Brian: So you’d argue that the SPJ code is moral in nature?

        This works if I’m willing to accept that right and wrong are inherently religious in their determination. Of course, I do nothing of the sort.

    • Andrew, I don’t really know what you’re driving at. It seems very important to you to establish that ethics = morality. Maybe it did 3000 years ago, but as a practical matter that I think most of us understand, as an operationalized matter, if you prefer, Brian noted that Paterno had legal responsibilities, he had responsibilities of a professional and social nature, and he had obligations of a spiritual/religious nature. I personally don’t think the last bit matters within the conduct of one’s job in a state institution, but I see Brian’s point.

      I think this is all quite clear and I don’t really feel any allure toward a debate on semantics.

  12. Messrs. Smith and Angliss — I had thought this was where you were headed; I recognize that there is some popular usage in the way to which you are referring. I simply think it is a form of misunderstanding, considering the way those terms are used in philosophy (and they are philosophical terms, after all). That words can be used in a certain way does not mean that any given way is the best way, particularly if there is a more disciplined usage that communicates meaning more accurately with reference to established norms in that part of social or intellectual life with which the language is most closely associated. Here, gentlemen, the area is philosophy which — and I admit this is an arguable claim — ought to trump the mishmash of common pop culture.

    I would submit that a better distinction to use with respect to the issue at hand is between the personal and the social, where ethics and morality are used interchangeably. For instance, Mr. Angliss, your example using the journalist above doesn’t really deal with a spiritual component to behavior (or at least it does not have to do so). It could simply be that the journalist has a different (read: more stringent) personal code of morality/ethics than is required by the law (which in this case is the agreed upon social morality as ensconced in the legal code). The distinction of the spiritual from the secular is not nearly so important as is the personal and the social. (After all the individual person could understand his personal moral code in ways that do not require reference to the religious or spiritual in any meaningful way.)

    All this being said, I do agree with a version of Mr. Smith’s original point, which is that Coach Paterno had differing levels of responsbility with regard to the awful situation in question, and moreover, that while he may have satisfied the legal obligation (which is social), he most certainly did not satisfy the kind of personal moral obligation that the community would expect out of person in his position. Here we are venturing into more complicated waters, for ethics is both statutory and customary; and I think we would need to be more clear about the nature of how social expectations can or should bear on a personal code of conduct. But again, the distinction is not between ethikos and moralia; it is rather between civis and societas.

  13. I”m not trolling for fun, Brian. What happened in the PSU football program was foul and despicable. I can understand that only a handful of people knew about it and had the power to stop it. They didn’t. And let’s be clear, it is now 2012; Paterno knew in the late 90’s for sure. That is what it is and can’t be changed.

    Remember that Sandusky was at the pinnacle of his career as a DC in 1999 when he suddenly retired. The heir-apparent to Paterno retired and took a new position within the university. That smells like a move to help a friend while covering up his behavior to protect the football program. Joe Paterno’s football program.

    I apparently misread Marti’s explanation as a defense … for that i’ll apologize. None-the-less, i think the explanation falls short, because it appears that Paterno acted on his knowledge of Sandusky’s behavior in a way designed to minimize the personal effects on Sandusky and the public effects on PSU football. And allowed Sandusky to keep doing what he was doing, on campus and while being payed to do it by Penn State University.

    Marti’s explanation would be much stronger if Paterno hadn’t acknowledged the issue at all and let Sandusky continue on like nothing had happened.

    Whether you like it or not, Paterno was, is and will continue to be the public image of PSU. He abetted child molestation, and it looks like the majority of your fellow alums are willing to abet it too. I’ve come to the point where i find the cult of personality around Paterno almost as disgusting as what Sandusky did and what Paterno let him do.

    So i am quite serious about how i will see and refer to Penn State University, just as i was serious about resisting the urge to indulge in the humor initially. It’s the administration of your alma mater and its alumni that have created that impression, so while it’s not fair to you, it is deserved.

    • Whether you like it or not, Paterno was, is and will continue to be the public image of PSU. He abetted child molestation, and it looks like the majority of your fellow alums are willing to abet it too.

      I don’t see any evidence to support the word “majority.” There are plenty of knuckleheads, to be sure, but my guess is that they’re just a small minority surrounded by microphones and videocameras.