On Joe Paterno and Societal Responsibilities

Joe Paterno was fired from his position as head football coach at Penn State University on Tuesday. The details of the alleged child sexual abuse case involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky can easily be obtained from any news source. Here is a link to the Grand Jury report that led to the uncovering of the “cover ups” and I must warn you, the details in it are very graphic but I strongly suggest you read it to understand the details of the crime, witnesses and inaction in the face of a mountain of evidence. (Grand Jury report: Downloaded from CBS Chicago website on Wednesday Nov 10).

As soon as the Penn State Board of Trustees (BoT) announced their decision to terminate the employment of Paterno on Tuesday night as the head football coach (and Graham Spanier was fired from the position of University President), student protests (and riots) began in the university campus and the surrounding areas. I have read and seen plenty of message boards and social networking sites with current students and alumni expressing their support for Paterno and some even going as far as saying he is a victim in all this.

As much as it is within the rights of the students to protest, I find the logic behind it absolutely disgusting, and here is why.

To make my stance absolutely clear, I do not agree with the view that Joe Paterno is a victim in all this and in my opinion, it was the right decision by the BoT to fire Paterno especially after he accorded himself the luxury of staying on as the head coach till the end of this season, when he could have just as easily tendered his resignation.

To say that Paterno is a victim is an outrageous statement to make. Yes, Paterno followed protocol in that he reported it to his superiors, so he is not in any messy “legal” waters but there is a moral issue here, and it is relevant to the fiber that societies are built upon and that is the moral obligation to take action when you see something wrong and to protect the defenseless. Wars have been fought and millions have sacrificed their lives for these two ideals: Protect the innocent and to make a stand when someone has been wronged.

Paterno (and others involved in the chain of command) decided to do the absolute minimum and pass the buck to the higher authority, while trying to protect the reputation of the football program and perhaps the university. According to the state of Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting statute for suspected child abuse (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6311):

A person who, in the course of employment, occupation or practice of a profession, comes into contact with children shall report or cause a report to be made in accordance with section 6313 (relating to reporting procedure) when the person has reasonable cause to suspect, on the basis of medical, professional or other training and experience, that a child under the care, supervision, guidance or training of that person or of an agency, institution, organization or other entity with which that person is affiliated is a victim of child abuse, including child abuse by an individual who is not a perpetrator.

The fact that so many people in so many different positions of power, authority and responsibility did not take the most logical step of reporting the situation to the local law enforcement agencies or child protection services -either they did not want to take that extra step or were driven by a selfish need to protect themselves and the reputation of a famous football program at a prestigious university – is not only in violation of the aforementioned statute but is also appalling.

Put yourselves in the shoes of a parent of one of these kids. Would that parent report it to their superior and wait for any action, or would you be calling the law enforcement authorities immediately? Paterno is entrusted with the lives of scores of young men every year and he has miserably failed in carrying out the most basic humanly decent obligation to society. This applies equally to Graham Spanier as well. By the same token, I find it disgusting that Mike McQueary will continue to be on the sidelines this weekend when Penn State plays Nebraska. [Update, 9.40 PM, Nov 10: GoPSUSports.com reports that McQueary will not be on the sidelines]

Penn State University is much larger than its football program. It is a place of higher learning where the minds of future leaders and responsible citizens of the world are molded. When the gatekeepers of the virtues of human society, dignity and responsibility – our teachers and coaches – will not uphold the morals that we seek to find in ourselves, it is highly disturbing. I hope that a thorough investigation of the situation is carried out and every (and any) person that had the knowledge of the issue and did not act on it (by act, i mean report to law enforcement agencies) is disassociated from the university to regain the institution’s honor. This should serve as a lesson and a reminder that we all have a moral obligation and responsibility to stand up for what is right and protect the defenseless.

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28 Responses to On Joe Paterno and Societal Responsibilities

  1. Nishant Raizada says:

    I agree. Anyone that knew to a good degree what was going on and did not report to authorities (legal and higher) is morally responsible and shares blame. I cannot fathom how McQueary still coaches on the sidelines while Joe Pa doesn’t. I think he should step down too.

  2. Sri Hari Krishna says:

    I agree. He had to go. All it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing. Joe is one of the best. He should have done more. Unfortunately, the good he has done will always be overshadowed by his ignominious exit and the events that precipitated it.

  3. Vikram says:

    I fully agree with you Suppi. While JoePa certainly seems to have done a lot for the university, he has to be penalized for not doing everything he could have done. Clearly this was an instance of to trying to cover your own ass while losing sight of what was more important. The safety of those kids.
    Perhaps JoePa set the example on and off the field for most of his life. But he seems to have dropped the ball when it mattered the most. And for that, he has to pay.

  4. Anandraja13 says:

    absolutely agree with u mate.

  5. Karthik Rajagopalan says:

    True that. I’m amazed at the scale of failure here. How could they let Sandusky be on campus and use university facilities as recently as last week? It simply shows how little they cared about the allegations. People in leadership positions are normally held to higher standards of morality, but the breach here is at a very basic level. How could these people (especially McQueary) sleep at night.

  6. Karthik Rajagopalan says:

    True that. I’m amazed at the scale of failure here. How could they let Sandusky be on campus and use university facilities as recently as last week? It simply shows how little they cared about the allegations. People in leadership positions are normally held to higher standards of morality, but the breach here is at a very basic level. How could these people (especially McQueary) sleep at night.

  7. Nishant, Karthik, Vikram, Anand and Hari, Thanks for your comments. It has been reported that McQueary will not be on the team sidelines and I’ve added that story in the post as an update. I think people need to make one distinction — The fact that Joe needed to be fired (or he should have resigned right away as well as Spanier and anyone else related to this “cover up”) does not change the fact he meant so much to the University and did a lot of wonderful things in more than 6 decades of stay in State College. The students protesting and thinking Joe was the fall guy are failing to the see this distinction.

  8. Virenp98 says:

    First when I thought what Joe Pa would have thought when Mcqueary came to him – a guy who he has known for a few months coming with pretty big allegations against a guy he had know for 20 some years… naturally it isn’t easy to fathom and if you go to police directly, you’re still putting someone’s reputation on line without you actually knowing if it happened. So I can see why he went to the administration instead of police. But what bothered me was that he must have thought that even an ounce of Mcqueary’s account and probably he wasn’t the lying kind, then he should have queried some more – even confront Sandusky about it directly.
    It just seems that Paterno wished it were untrue and after hearing nothing from the administration, it sort of satisfied his wishes and suppressed his conscience. Paterno is certainly not a victim but grossly negligent but the real culprits are the administrators and I’d also blame Mcqueary and his dad to not go to police.

    • Viren — I get that he perhaps hesitated bringing the reputation of someone who he had known for 20+ years in to serious question, but he had to understand the cost of it being true and not to have taken action – which was the continued exploitation and sexual abuse of innocent, vulnerable children. That is a pretty big lapse in judgement. And of course, every one else in that chain of command needs to be dealt with, strictly, as well. No exceptions.

      • Karthik Rajagopalan says:

        Sandusky was investigated in 1998 for something along the same lines and it is hard to believe that Joe did not know about it. It was the university police that investigated him.

      • Karthik Rajagopalan says:

        Sandusky was investigated in 1998 for something along the same lines and it is hard to believe that Joe did not know about it. It was the university police that investigated him.

        • Virenp98 says:

          Not denying any of your comments and like I said some blame does lie with Joe Pa too. But it also appalls me that Mcqueary was going to be on the sidelines for the next game – he was 28 when he witnessed the incident, not an immature teen looking for a place in the team.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t know whether it’s true that Mr Paterno had only have know Mr McQueary for a few months, but this was not the first time Mr Sadusky had been implicated in sexual abuse of children: the first incidence had been reported as early as 1999 IIRC; Mr McQueary reported what he had seen in 2002. So there was a clear pattern there.

      And so we end up in 2011 with several more children abused and raped. It’s sickening.

      The crime itself is absolutely sickening, but so is the willingness of people who should have known better, who should – and could – have acted to stop this abominable man, who should not have looked the other way and buried their heads in the sand. And those people include Mr Paterno, Mr McQueary, the University authorities, two campus police officers, and a child protective services person. Mr Sandusky is obviously the greatest villain, but those people are not without guilt.

      • @Bettiwettiwoo – I agree with you 100%. What has been baffling me is the suppression of the 1998 incident. It just so happened that Sandusky, at a young age of 55 (Young for a college football coach anyway), the seemingly the next one in line to replace Joe as the head coach, abruptly retired in 1999. Are those two incidents related? I do not know. But it needs to be reopened and investigated thoroughly. If there is any truth to that, then many people including Joe are definitely complicit and can be tried for aiding and abetting a child predator.

        • Anonymous says:

          Yes, it’s those really strange goings-on in 1998-9 that damns Mr Paterno and Penn State, I think.

          (Mr Sandusky is damned by all his actions; in my opinion, beyond reasonable doubt.)

          That whole sorry saga of the janitor’s story and his reaction at the time (as witnessed by his work colleagues), the college ‘police’ and social worker investigating (but doing nothing), Mr Sandusky’s being told that he would never be head coach and his sudden retirement, etc etc.

          I find it very hard – especially in the light of subsequent events – to believe that a fair few – and certainly including Mr Paterno – of the so-called powers-that-be at Penn State did not have a fair idea of what sort of character Mr Sandusky really was and why he shouldn’t be put in charge of a programme involving boys and young men.

          Mr Sandusky deserves to go to Hell for what he did. The people who looked the other way and enabled him to carry on raping and abusing children for a decade or more – well, the very least they deserve are to be fired; obviously, they too are unsuited to be in charge of anything involving the care of adolescents.

          (I am sorry for any people involved in the Penn State football programme who really had no idea that this was going on. They too are, in a way, victims, albeit of a much, much, much lesser kind. But whatever hardships inflicted on them is incidental. Mr Sandusky and his enablers must receive punishments appropriate to their crimes.)

  9. Terrific post Couch saab. I think it is important for us to distinguish “should” and “could” statements in this entire debate. It may be acceptable for us to debate what the BoT could do, or what could happen in a civil law court under the auspices of the law. However, this is confined to the realm of the descriptive and objectively prescriptive as a result. As soon as we start getting normative- about what the BoT should do, or how we as fans should feel about the entire episode- we really leave the realm of the legal. You make this point quite clearly and it is worth emphasizing. The crime committed was of a nature so heinous that discussions over it have necessarily veered into the realm of the moral, something a lot of defenders of Paterno seem incapable of recognizing.

    • @Rohit – Thanks for the comment. While I was writing the post, I was consulting with my wife about the flow and the message of it. She is of the same opinion as you are. The crime – as we discussed offline – as reported by McQueary to Paterno in 2002 – even had only a 1% chance of being true, Paterno needed to call in the law enforcement officials as even that small a chance means harm to children. In fact, McQueary should have rung up the police before he informed Paterno, which is why I had mentioned that I was disgusted he was not fired as well (Apparently, he is going to be stood down from the sidelines but I sincerely hope he is fired as well).

  10. Sridhar Ranganathan says:

    I do not completely agree with what you have presented. And I know very well I am a minority here. In fact, someone I knew asked me a very disturbing question I could not answer – “If you are a dad, would you send your kid to Penn State after knowing what happened?”. So, yes! There are lots of people who are disgusted by what has happened. But the failure, I think, is on the part of the institution rather than an individual.

    There are details which have not surfaced yet about Joe’s complicity (or the lack of it) in this issue. Football is the lifeline of 95% of American universities. Particularly, in the present context it is natural to blame “Penn State’s” problems on its football and the people who run the program. I concede that I was a little emotional in my response after hearing BoT’s decision to “relieve” Joe from his coaching duties. In fact, the way in which issues pertaining to Joe was dealt with incensed me, primarily, because of the lack of courteousness towards the old man on the part of Penn State. Afterall, I believe it was Penn State who is at fault here and not Joe. Here is why – All of us in the US have in one way or the other observed, been part of and worked in under various areas these colleges branches into i.e. research, athletics, administration, beauracracy, finance etc. In all these areas, any university tends to act autonomously unto themselves as if it is its own territory when it comes to dealing with issues. More so in dealing with an enormous and explosive issue – child sex-abuse. The problem lies in this very aspect – The “in-house” treatment of issues. Not only it defies the fundamentals of transparency but it opens avenues where influence becomes a potential attacker of law. In this issue, the only certain inference is that Penn State has deliberately preferred to keep it within the house.

    Looking at the facts we “know” so far, it is clear Joe Pa reported the issue to AD and within a matter of days Sandusky was arrested. No one even knows if any one followed up with the university the course of action taken in this regard. Lets not speculate on whether Joe followed it up for we don’t have any fact about this yet. He has not spoken out. The university has not spoken up. It is in this missing information where my hope lies. A hope that Joe did everything he could yet he fell short of what could have stopped violence against those kids. That is why the old man himself admits to have “done a little more”.

    My football viewing habit started only in 2007. I have only heard he is a coaching legend. Honestly, I am not one of the students that went to the riot the other day booing the cops. But I went there with a firm belief that Joe is no one but a “failed hero” brought down by the very institution he has given his life for.

    “If” is not the word the victims would like to hear at the moment, but still I would like to say if Penn State had dealt and let its issues flow outside its house to proper law enforcement agencies, things would have been far different. I am sad by what has happened. I see that is a very common feeling in this comments section. I really liked SriHari’s quote.

    • Divya says:

      I think you have your facts wrong! They didn’t arrest Sandusky after the Joe Pa incident because NO ONE went to the cops. They arrested him years later after a concerned mother called the cops. So between the Jo Pa incident and the mother reporting he went on abusing other kids!!! That is what angers everyone about it!

    • @ Sridhar – Thanks for taking your time to read the post and provide a detailed response. I am not sure if you have the Grand Jury report. If you haven’t, please do. It gives you a pretty good timeline of how things have unfolded from 1998 to 2002 to 2009 to 2011. It is important to understand that timeline to realize how many people have fallen short of taking the most basic, decent thing to do – to call the law enforcement for the sake of protecting innocent children from being sexually abused.

      To say, Penn State failed and Paterno didn’t is, in my opinion, missing the issue. What is an institution if not a collection of well meaning individuals? I am not saying that the buck should stop with the firing of Paterno and Spanier. Instead, the special committee that has been appointed and the investigation started by the Department of Education delves much deeper in to this and gets to the bottom to understand how many people failed to carry out a simple, basic task and appropriately penalize them.

      Agreeing to the firing of Paterno does not mean that his contributions to the university are to be forgotten or discredited. I think that also needs to be understood.

      • Sridhar Ranganathan says:

        I did read the grand jury report. I admit I misinterpreted the data. I read again about what happened in March 2002. What is said was after Joe reported the incident to the AD, there was an investigation held by the university police / officials (unclear who did this investigating). And during this investigation, the GA, his dad or Joe was never contacted for their views. However, it said he was barred from the facilities etc. An arrest and an investigation happened earlier in 1998 and the case was specific to Victim 6 in the report.

        There is negligence at a large level. An institution must be a collection of good individuals. Unfortunately, Penn State has not stuck to this. Accidents happen when either there is no trust in the system or when the the system is flawed. This issue happened because the university officials made a mistake in not letting the issue go into the hands of law enforcement. Joe did the right thing in trusting the system – he reported it to the AD. Whether he followed it up or not, is something no one will know unless he speaks out. He wishes he had done a little more.

        Sandusky is a man who has faced the law in 1998 for this very issue. No criminal charges were filed against him. And he retired from PSU football immediately. Joe was not a witness to the crime in 2002. He had heard a version of it from the GA / his dad. He neither had any evidence nor was he a witness. How can he present a case to the police of a magnitude this large against a person this influential when he did not have anything in hand?

  11. Ronnie B says:

    Havent we all made mistakes? Hindsight is always 20-20. Joe Pa probably deserved to be fired but lets not forget that he is a hall of famer and also a good person. I still would have liked him to be coach till the end of the season.
    With Penn States reputation already in question, the students should understand that rioting is not going to make it better but worse. Everything happening seems wrong.

    • @Ronnie B – As I have addressed Sridhar’s comment, we need to distinguish the lapse of judgement – a huge one at that – from Paterno’s accomplishment on the field as the head football coach.

      Yes, we all do make mistakes. It is not about a witch hunt. It is about wanting to do the right thing, and going that extra step/mile to protect the vulnerable and the defenseless and stand up for what is right and IMO, Paterno (and the rest of the officialdom at Penn State) have failed at it miserably.

      • Sridhar Ranganathan says:

        One thing I would like to add to your post. I think there is a very wrong opinion among some people. They feel all those who think Joe did the right thing are apathetic towards the victims. This is wrong! These are horrible crimes and the student’s violent reaction is shameful.

  12. Srikar Tati says:

    He had to go, I agree!
    I see it as a system failure, but one-man run program, that too for a very long time, will create a complex system.

  13. Shiva_gsc says:

    “it was the right decision by the BoT to fire Paterno especially after he accorded himself the luxury of staying on as the head coach till the end of this season”

    Yep ! Totally agree with that one. I felt there was no point for him to stay on for a few more games given the terrible mess.

  14. Benny says:

    Its simply incredible, as to the number of similar cases, not just in the U.S., but around the world as well….why do men in power lose their sense of morals and values so easily??

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