In a corner of my office, on a wall, hangs a framed memory that reads: “Presented by the Faculty Staff Club with appreciation to Jim Lichtman, writer & ethics specialist, What Do You Stand For? – Getting Back America’s Integrity, November 3, 2005.”
The certificate was given (already framed) for a talk I presented to the Penn State Forum, signed by three school officials including University President Graham Spanier. What I, and apparently most everyone else, did not know at that time was that three years earlier football receivers coach Mike McQueray had witnessed former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky sodomizing a young boy in the locker room shower.
According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2005, Penn State’s standards and conduct officer, Vicky Triponey had tried, unsuccessfully, to get Joe Paterno to toughen up penalties against student players who violated conduct rules or allow her office to take charge of the matter. In an e-mail to president Spanier, Triponey wrote that “The Coach is insistent he knows best how to discipline his players… and their status as a student when they commit violations of our standards should NOT be our concern… I think he was saying,” Triponey concludes, “we should treat football players different from other students in this regard.”
When Spanier visited Triponey he told her that Paterno had demanded that she be fired, or he, Joe Paterno, would stop fund-raising for the University. Although she remained in her job, Triponey resigned two years later citing “philosophical differences.”
Such was the culture surrounding Penn State and the man, Joe Paterno, who clearly practiced a double-standard in policy when it came to his student-players. For me, it is also an example of a clear difference between appearance and reality.
When I arrived at State College airport, I was met by a staffer who – throughout the length of the drive to my on-campus hotel – related story after story about the man, the legend, the god that was Joe Paterno. I had arrived prior to a big game that weekend and the hotel was packed with alumni and friends of Joe. “Here for the game?” someone asked.
“No,” I said, I’m giving a little talk at the forum.”
A year earlier, Joe Paterno had contributed to my book, What Do You Stand For? It confirmed what I thought and what others had said about Paterno – that he was unquestionably a man of principle.
“I tried to recruit a kid out of Cincinnati,” Joe wrote, “who was a great, great football player. He would have made a great impact on the success of our football team. I went to his house, sat down and talked with him and his dad, trying to sell them on Penn State. The dad said to me at the end of my conversation, ‘Yeah that’s fine coach, but what are you going to do for the kid?’ I asked him what he meant by that. I said I am going to give him whatever the NCAA grants him. The dad then told me his son couldn’t go to Penn State unless he could get a few extra things. I told the father I couldn’t do that. I wished him my best and walked away from him.”
It was a story that was confirmed by several sources, particularly on-campus media where I was interviewed about my book. From the interview, I was escorted to the Forum site on campus where the room was packed with students, teachers and administrators. I take my place at a table down in front near the podium. An official in the room leans over and tells me, “You’re doin’ great so far, Jim. You’re out-drawing last month’s Forum speaker.”
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Dick Thornburgh,” (former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General for President Reagan).
The talk inside the room is not just about football, it’s about Paterno. I had planned on opening with a little joke I’d come up with about Joe and football, but at the last minute, decided against using it. I realized – correctly – when it comes to Penn State, you don’t joke about football and you definitely don’t joke about God.
While finishing lunch, a man arrives late and sits down next to me. While others are engaged in conversation, I introduce myself and the gentleman begins by asking me questions about the talk and as soon as I mention ethics, he says, “You’re talk could not be more timely.” Little did I know that his comment had a more personal meaning.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
“Graham Spanier,” he said. “I’m the university’s president.
After the introduction, I get up to the podium and launch into the talk. After an opening story, I begin a brief, but distinguished laundry list of ethics scandals representing all manner of lying and cheating from “Scooter” Libby to Martha Stewart.
“Too often,” I say, “some people confuse charm for character when the only thing that should count – from an ethical standpoint – is what someone does not how personable or charming they are. What concerns me most is the fact that every time we hear another personal, political or corporate ethics scandal our level of trust and confidence in individuals and institutions declines.
“Of course, the real question in all of this is – How do we get back America’s integrity?”
I spend the next part defining six, core ethical values and offer examples of positive role models. “Penn State’s own Joe Paterno,” I say, “shares a story in my book in which he passed up a promising young football prospect because the father wanted more for his son than the rules would allow. ‘Success without honor,’ Joe wrote, ‘is like an unseasoned dish. It will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.’ ”