Thoughts on the Joe Paterno Scandal
Since the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke on Saturday morning, the media has presented a veritable cornucopia of mock outrage and indignation while pandering for clicks on their websites. How do I know it’s “mock” outrage and indignation? Well, the name “Jerry Sandusky” and the phrase “damage to the children” have been used almost exclusively to preface articles about Joe Paterno, who occupies only a miniscule role in the sordid, disgusting affair. Sandusky was a pervert who perpetrated harmful and evil acts upon children who trusted him. He caused the most stomach churning sports story that I have ever witnessed, and he has been used almost exclusively as a contextualizing detail in the media witch hunt of Joe Paterno. Through a dogged insistence to redirect the conversation towards its most prominent figure, the media has changed the narrative from a heinous scandal into a debate about the morality and legacy of Joe Paterno. While I disagree with the diversion, allow me to give my thoughts on modern college football, Paterno’s culpability, and why I think the inclusion of Paterno into the story has refocused the discussion on a marginal detail.
Before I continue, I feel the necessity to clarify my thoughts. The media has somehow conflated support for Paterno with dismissal of the victims’ harm (hence the line around the block of normally audacious and controversial media members rehashing the same narrative in the same way). I believe that Paterno played a role in the scandal. I believe his role was marginal. I believe that he failed in his ethical and moral duty when he stopped pursuing the story and failed to bring the matter to the attention of the police. I believe that he had to be fired at the end of the year as part of a complete slash and burn of the Penn State athletic department. I believe that his immediate dismissal was defensible, but not necessary. I believe that his legacy remains more positive than negative. Finally, I believe that anyone expressing unadulterated outrage towards Joe Paterno OR the board of trustees that chose to end his long tenure as the head football coach has taken an unnecessarily simplistic view of the events.
Like it or not, since last night’s announcement of Paterno’s immediate termination, Paterno is now a topic independent of the scandal that forced his ignominious exit. The story of Joe Paterno’s tenure casts an upsetting light on the nature of coaching in modern college football. This article from the Baltimore Sun explains that as Paterno’s career progressed, he lost sight of the noble goals of college athletics. In his younger days, Paterno edified the notion of well-rounded student athletes. During the end of his tenure, he stopped aspiring to produce admirable young men and started producing football machines at all costs. While it’s appealing to attribute his transformation solely to changing personal beliefs and standards, I believe that Paterno’s metamorphosis reflects changing values within the college football landscape. Winning has always been a major priority in college athletics, but in the money-laden BCS era, winning is the only priority. Enormous coaching salaries and the twenty-four hour news cycles have dramatically sped up the time table for coaches to win. They no longer have time to mold the leaders of tomorrow. It might prevent them from molding the Cleveland Brown’s starting strong safety of tomorrow.
In the early 2000s, Paterno experienced the shift first hand. Penn State stunk, and Paterno’s intangible value to the community was losing importance when compared to his paltry win totals. Paterno was faced with a choice: adapt or perish. He adapted. He became a modern football coach. He scoffed at disciplinary issues within his program, turned a blind eye to the “higher mission,” and started winning football games. The narrow, laser-like focus on football necessary to succeed in the modern college game does not allow a coach to deal with administrative matters or mentor athletes. Football becomes two full-time jobs (coaching and recruiting), so any and all distractions are delegated or ignored.
In the end, Paterno delegated his responsibility poorly and thoughtlessly, and it cost him his job. While, hopefully, we will never have a chance to test this hypothesis, I’m not sure that every other head coach around the country would have acted differently in the same circumstances. Social responsibility and ethical decision-making are not highly sought-after traits in a modern football coach. The ability to ignore or delegate every non-football issue, however, permeates the coaching fraternity. This separation of personhood from coach-hood, a product of the ever-growing emphasis on on-field virtues at the expense of off-field ones, gives me the ominous impression that this scandal could have occurred at several programs.
In order to assess the impact of the scandal on his legacy, it’s important to step back and look at his role in the scandal. While he has become the focal point of the media coverage, shockingly supplanting Jerry Sandusky at the center of the controversy, Paterno did not rape any little boys. Sandusky remains responsible for the harm to the boy in the shower and his other victims. Paterno’s major error was passing the story along to the AD and the head of campus police, and then moving on to his job. If Curley had done his job by investigating and reporting the incident to the proper authorities, Paterno would never have been embroiled in this mess. Critics claim that Joe Pa, as a result of his influence, must have conspired with Curley to effectuate the cover up, but that conclusion is simply not supported by the available facts. Paterno failed to grasp the magnitude and gravity of the situation and simply followed the chain of command rather than taking the extraordinary action demanded by the situation. He did the bare minimum in a situation where more was required, but he did do the minimum, which is more than you can say about any other participant in this story.
To borrow terminology from tort law, Paterno was an actual cause, but not the proximate cause of Sandusky’s extended jaunt from justice. Paterno’s actions were in a long chain of causation that allowed Sandusky to walk free, but the actions of subsequent parties, namely Curley, Spanier, and Shultz were the proximate cause of injuries caused after Paterno reported the charges to Curley. Proximate causation determines whether a person’s role in a tort should serve as a basis for liability. The chain of proximate causation is broken if subsequent injuries are caused as a result of intentional conduct by another bad actor. Paterno cannot, and to the media’s credit, has not been blamed for Sandusky’s actions prior to 2002. Thus, his culpability relates solely to the children placed in harm’s way after Sandusky was exposed and before he was arrested and charged. His failure to report Sandusky to the police caused a brief delay in the process of effectuating justice. He reported to Curley, who was tasked with investigating the allegations and reporting them to the police. Paterno was responsible for any of Sandusky’s acts that took place between the time he discovered the transgressions and the time the athletic department should have reported Sandusky to the police. Given the obvious nature of the charges and the eye-witness account, I would estimate the lag in justice attributable to Joe Paterno to be about two days. After that, the blame lies solely with Curley and Shultz who engaged in a deliberate cover-up, thus breaking the chain of proximate causation arising from Joe Paterno’s inaction.
The argument exists that Paterno turned a willfully blind eye towards the cover up for ten years. While that may be partially true, Paterno occupied a high profile job that demanded 100% of his attention. Again, Paterno was certainly guilty of a failure of perspective, but my guess is that he rarely even thought about the scandal once he reported it to Curley. He was fighting for his job and immersing himself in his football team, as is necessary for success in the modern world of college football. He treated this incident like he treated all non-football matters: he did not allow it to distract him from his job. He should have realized the exceptional nature of this situation and acted appropriately, but I think his failure to do so stems from mere negligent, rather than willful, blindness.
Paterno acted inappropriately to the magnitude of the situation, but the media has refocused the scandal so squarely on him so persistently that he has become a scapegoat. The depth of the depravity in the story elicits a guttural reaction from even the most hardened, unemotional sports fan, and the level of outrage that has followed the story has been appropriate. Somewhere along the way, though, the outrage spilled over and infected Paterno disproportionately to his role in the story. Cynically, I believe that the sports media saw an opportunity to generate clicks by concocting headlines about Paterno’s role in the scandal. In reality, Paterno played a marginal role in the story, and should have been a footnote in articles about how Sandusky gained access to dozens of children and the impact and prevalence of sexual molestation in our society. Instead seizing the opportunity to create important pieces of investigative journalism, the media’s outrage boiled over and, rightly or wrongly, covered every individual implicated in the scandal. Paterno has been vilified as if he was openly sanctioning Sandusky’s activities or, in some cases, raping the children, himself.
This story has always been about protecting children and raising awareness about sexual abuse, but somewhere along the way, the media felt compelled to force a square peg into a round hole by injecting Paterno into the heart of that narrative. Strangely, the media felt no such compulsion with regard to Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant who witnessed Sandusky performing a sex act on a pre-teen. Like Paterno, he simply reported up the chain of command, and abandoned his role in the story as soon as he had fulfilled his minimum legal obligation. Paterno’s failure, however, was exaggerated to the point of absurdity, and the pressure created by the media ultimately led to his immediate dismissal. The disparate treatment of Paterno and McQueary, who failed as much or more than Paterno in his ethical duties, demonstrates that Paterno’s profile drove the media onslaught more than his actual culpability.
My opinion that Paterno was scapegoated does not affect my opinion of the students rioting at Penn State last night. Their lack of perspective was startling, even compared to the lack of perspective exhibited by the sports media in the last five days. Paterno did (or in this case, didn’t do) enough to get fired from any university in the country. While his immediate dismissal was catalyzed by a misguided media frenzy, it was not wrong or unjustifiable. The error lies in singling out Paterno for dismissal, not the policy to dismiss him. I believe that every person associated with the scandal should have been fired as soon as the game ended last Saturday. The school should have elected to either forfeit the remaining games or donate all proceeds to a child abuse awareness foundation. The problem was larger than Penn State football, and those students that put Paterno’s role with the football program ahead of the impact of the scandal on victims and the Penn State student community should be ashamed of themselves.
I am more sympathetic, however, to the students that went to Paterno’s house last night to express their support and appreciation. While Paterno is leaving under the black cloud of unfathomable scandal, he should be remembered for his positive contributions at least as much as his small role in the disgusting Sandusky saga. Paterno may have sunk into the sludge of modern, football-centric coaching, but for the majority of his career, he really did believe in mentoring young men and producing well-rounded, productive members of society. He believed in the dual mission of college athletics. As my roommate from college would say, “he rooted for the laundry, not the name on the back.” He cared about Penn State in a way that most current college football coaches couldn’t imagine. He didn’t chase money. He remained loyal to Penn State and has espoused the virtues of that institution for 50 years. He won more games than any other coach in college football history, and created one of the greatest programs in the country. Paterno should not be excused from his role in the Sandusky scandal, but it absolutely should not define his legacy.