Category Archives: Joe Paterno

The Evasion of Joe Paterno

There is a lot of commentary out there about Penn State and Joe Paterno. I don’t have much to add, but with today’s announcement that Penn State has taken down the Joe Paterno statue, I thought some comments were necessary.

Obviously, Sandusky can rot in whatever very special level of hell is reserved for him. I do not think there is any controversy about that. Moreover, that part of the story is not about sports, so, qua Sports Ethicist, there is nothing more to say.

There is enough evidence now to show that leading Penn State authorities acted improperly and immorally (if not illegally in some cases). Many are calling for the so-called Death Penalty (where the NCAA shuts down the program completely for at least a year if not more). Others, Yahoo Sports, say that the NCAA is more likely to cut scholarships and bowl eligibility. Both punishments end up hurting a lot of innocent people (current students and athletes, supporting businesses) who had nothing to do with the abuse or the cover up. Nevertheless, the problems at Penn State, according to the Freeh report, are deep and led to tragic consequences. The Death Penalty seems overly harsh to me, especially since all the principals are dead, out of a job, or facing criminal charges. I guess we will see a multi-year loss of bowl eligibility and severe cuts to athletic scholarships.

Not surprisingly, former Head Coach Joe Paterno has been the focus of a lot of the commentaries and arguments about Penn State. To steal a phrase from another time, “What did he know and when did he know it?”

The Freeh report concludes that Paterno knew all about the investigations and abuse and knew it early on. If these conclusions are warranted, then Paterno ought to be morally condemned in the strongest possible way. If he knew what Sandusky was up to and either did nothing or worse acted positively to cover it up, he is nearly as evil as Sandusky. However, the evidence cited by the Freeh report (mainly emails between AD Curley and VP Schultz) does not conclusively show that Paterno knew anything or say what he knew. The evidence is consistent with other hypotheses of how things went down: for example, Curley and Schultz could have been working to keep Paterno out of the loop. (To be clear: I am not saying that this is the case one way or the other, only that, regarding Paterno, the evidence in the report does not conclusively support the stated conclusions of the report. Other criticisms of the Freeh Report)

Nevertheless, Paterno is not off the hook by any stretch. At best, this happened on his watch and under his nose. But more than that, even if not privy to what Curley and Schultz knew, he chose not to look. He closed his eyes and let others handle it.

Illustrative is the following quote:

“… his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment…” (Rand, Atlas Shrugged).

Rand’s description of the moral vice of evasion seems to fit Paterno’s response perfectly. What I’ve seen of his grand jury testimony and public comments indicate to me that he didn’t want to know about any of this, he didn’t want to deal with any of it. After McQueary’s report, Paterno passed the information on to others, hoping they would take care of it. Paterno seemingly closed his mind, hoping that it would all go away and he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He was in a position to know and in a position to know that there was something to know (and then certainly in a position to do something about it). Paterno’s willful blindness and blanking out, where he could have reasonably discovered the truth and acted on it, made possible the evil that Sandusky did. For that, Paterno is morally blameworthy. For that, it is right that the statute come down. For that, it is right that Paterno’s legacy will forever be damaged and marked by the abuse he could have and should have prevented.

Update 7/23/12:

The NCAA announced its sanctions of Penn State this morning. Penn State was handed a $60 million fine, a four-year football postseason ban, a five-year probation period, a stiff reduction of scholarships, and the vacation of all wins (112 including bowl wins and championships) from 1998 through 2011.(ESPN story) These are severe penalties. I was surprised by the win vacation and the size of the fine, though it all seems about right to me. The punishment seems to balance the need for punitive measures while taking into account the current players and students. They will get to play regular season football and students will get to see games. Ancillary businesses will not be as badly harmed as under total suspension. Players will also be able to transfer without loss of eligibility (though it is most likely too late for this fall). It sends a strong and loud signal that institutions need to be more responsible. In terms of the future of Penn State football, this is probably much worse than the Death Penalty for one or even two years. I doubt Penn State will ever recover as a major national football program. Maybe that is as it should be.

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