Seriously, Did We Really Learn Nothing From Joe Paterno & the Penn State Debacle?
It’s probably not fair to pick on the National Review’s Michael Novak, because I’ve been seeing a lot of this kind of thing this past week:
They said it was not a Penn State problem, because Sandusky had left the university in 1999, though he continued to use an office there for several more years… Then, quite suddenly in November 2011, with a huge national scandal erupting, the board suddenly acted as if the burden were on them. They did not weigh their own responsibility, their own inaction, their own failure to get to the bottom of the scandal of five months earlier. In a fit of what to many alumni seems to have been fear for themselves, the board’s members ducked their own responsibility, and in the most ignoble and impersonal way, made JoePa, the moral giant of Penn State, a moral outcast…
What did they do? Despite the fact that JoePa had said he was going to resign after the 2011 season was over, they gave Joe (after nearly 60 years of leadership unparalleled in the annals of any university) over to the national press and the national mob as a scapegoat, to bear the whole heartbreaking scandal on his shoulders, to be burned as a live offering, in expiation of their sins…
It is a crushing embarrassment when a morally flawed and timid agent blames the only moral giant in the Nittany Valley.
I have been hearing similar sentiments by callers on sports talk radio, and by the hosts of political talk radio. And of course I’ve seen it all over the internet. Even a months old post on Jubilee has had brand new traffic as people apparently are Googling anything not reverential of Paterno and looking to pick a fight. To quote Rod Dreher, to whom a hat tip is owed for the NRO post,
The tragedy here is not that a good man unintentionally allowed evil to be done. For Novak, the tragedy is that though the man was technically innocent of wrongdoing (“JoePa had met his professional responsibilities”), the
SanhedrinPenn State board of trustees sacrificed him nonetheless. What did this sacrifice consist of? Firing him instead of letting him dictate the terms of his exit. They sure don’t do crucifixions like they used to.
While I appreciate Dreher’s sentiment – in fact I think he’s spot on – I think that it’s instructive to note why Paterno was fired, because it seems like no one on there internet or talk radio remembers. Why he was fired is a really, really important lesson. In fact, it’s the most important lesson coming out of this sad tragedy, if only because “don’t molest kids” isn’t really a lesson for which most of us need to be reminded.
The fact of the matter is that Joe Paterno was made aware of allegations of the sexual molestation of a child by a member of his department in his department’s facilities. For whatever reason he chose not to perform or request a formal investigation. But – and this is the important part – performing a formal investigation is what he was legally required to do. As a risk manager that deals with both schools and non-profit organizations that deal with children, I can tell you this is not a rule that anyone takes lightly, or that anyone in these professions is unaware of. You know how every pro ballplayer knows not to gamble on baseball? It’s sort of the same thing, only with mandatory classes, trainings and documents you have to sign acknowledging you know and understand the law.
Was Joe Paterno a “Monster” for having trusted his staff enough to knowingly break the law? (And he did knowingly break the law; no one in that kind of position in today’s age is unaware of the law.) I can’t know his heart, but I have to look at the rest of his life and say a resounding “no.” It seems far more likely that he thought the accusation leveled against a friend and colleague too improbable and potentially damaging to perform the necessary investigation. In my mind, it’s hard to think of that as qualifying as a Monster.
Unfortunately, the bar for termination in any job is not “Being a Monster.”
The timing of the scandal relative to his life is a travesty, and I sincerely hope that as we distance ourselves from the present Paterno will be remembered for the incalculable positives he brought to his players, the University, and the world at large. He truly deserves that, in my opinion. But in any profession, there are some things that have to be fireable offenses – and at a school, Paterno’s transgression is one of them.
When Paterno neglected his legal obligations, he did more than put the safety of his community’s children at risk. (Though that was by far the worst thing, as the allegations appear to have turned out to be true.) He also put the assets and the entire financial position of the University at risk. And make no mistake, negative publicity and potential lost future donations aside, this is going to cost the University a tremendous amount of money. The lawsuits are going to come, and the University is not going to have a very defensible position. Being the size of institution it is, it is a good bet that they are self-insured for this kind of risk, which means that from zero dollars to $10 million, $25 million, $50 million, or wherever their reinsurance kicks in, they are quite possibly about to start settling for Kobe Bryant Paycheck kind of money. And that doesn’t take into account the legal fees, the man-hours by the University’s highest paid personnel, and – as mentioned above – the costs associated with bad publicity and lost donations. The only defense the board has is to say that the moment they as a group became aware of the transgression by Paterno, they investigated his actions, found them lacking, and fired him – as they were required to do by their HR policies and employee handbook.
This is the lesson that should be sticking with Novak and others so outraged that a Football Legend was unceremoniously terminated:
That even when a Living Legend chooses to ignore his legal and ethical responsibilities at the job, they can be summarily terminated for doing so.
It’s actually a good lesson. Most of us will, at some point in the next year or two, be faced with a situation at work where we have to choose between the legal and ethical over the easy and expedient. It’s good to remember, in those situations, that even the Legends pay a price by taking that easy, expedient road.