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.