Say it ain’t so, Joe!

Published: November 11, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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Like a lot of fans of Penn State, I was shocked to learn of the allegations of sexual assault on at least 8 young boys over a 15-year period by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

However, I was completely unprepared to learn of head coach Joe Paterno’s lack of action when he first heard of the abuse in 2002 by one of his own staff. While notifying two officials at the University, Paterno failed to contact police about the matter.

According to a report in the New York Times, “Mr. Paterno said the graduate assistant who reported the assault, Mike McQueary, said only that something disturbing had happened that was perhaps sexual in nature.” However, “…McQueary’s version called Mr. Paterno’s claim into question. McQueary had told those in authority the explicit details of what he saw, including in his face-to-face meeting with Mr. Paterno the day after the incident.”

As the story quickly developed, it was announced that Paterno would retire at the end of the current season. It was not to be. Paterno’s 4-decade long career ended, sadly, Wednesday night after a press conference by the Board of Trustees followed by wild protests from students when they learned of the decision.

Many details of the case are still evolving, so it’s difficult to comment on all involved who may have failed to act appropriately. From an ethical perspective, however, there clearly was a major breakdown in responsibility by many including senior administration officials. It appears that some individuals were reluctant to act for fear of damaging the reputation of a high profile university. However, in doing so, they further tarnished that reputation.

“Most of us,” ethicist Michael Josephson says, “overestimate the cost of doing the right thing and underestimate the cost of failing to do so.”

Throughout his long career, Joe Paterno was known as a man of total integrity, and I believe that. However, integrity requires us to treat our beliefs about right and wrong as ground rules of behavior and decision making. Unfortunately, Joe forgot those ground rules and, perhaps out of loyalty to the University, did not notify police as he should.

So, how could a man who has demonstrated integrity for most of his life make such a big mistake?

“There is a danger,” Josephson says, “that conscientious people who want to do their jobs well will cease to reflect on the moral justifications for the methods they use to achieve the results they seek. There is a tendency to compartmentalize ethics into private and occupational domains so as to justify fundamentally decent people doing things in their jobs that they know to be wrong in other contexts.”

If Paterno had waited say, a few hours or perhaps a day or so while he sought advice and counsel, I could understand. But to abstain from reporting the alleged sexual abuse of young boy to police that took place in 2002 is shameful, and sadly, requires that he be fired.

“The four enemies of integrity,” Josephson says, “are Self-interest (things we want); Self-protection (things we don’t want); Self-deception (it’s not an ethical issue); and Self-righteousness (end-justifies-the-means thinking).”

For a number of officials at Penn State, they look to be guilty of the first three and quite possibly the fourth in thinking that their reputation was too great to be damaged.

During the infamous Black Sox Scandal in 1919, Chicago White Sox slugger “shoeless” Joe Jackson admitted under oath that he had participated in a “fix” of the World Series for a cash payment of $5,000. Leaving the court in the custody of a sheriff, it was reported that a young boy approached his hero and pulled on his coat sleeve pleading, “It ain’t true, is it, Joe?”

“Yes, kid, I’m afraid it is,” Jackson reportedly said.

For his participation, Jackson and his teammates were banned from major league ball for the rest of their lives.

Not long after news of the scandal broke, Joe Paterno was quoted as saying, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Paterno has not only been an iconic head coach but a role model of integrity for many of his student players as well as the University. This is yet another reminder that even the best can slip. If it can happen to Joe Paterno, it can happen to us.

Ethics is about character, but it’s also about demonstrating the requisite moral courage in facing those challenges when doing the right thing is likely to cost more than we want to pay. That takes a commitment to and consciousness of the ethical issues that confront us; and when we make mistakes – as the best of us will do – to fully admit the truth as soon as possible.

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