Immoral Authority

Penn State’s firing of Joe Paterno has exposed a divide between those confusing his coaching skills for greatness and those considering his failure to act more decisively in confronting evil as abetting that evil. 

Joe Paterno has served at Penn State in some position for sixty-one years, with forty-six of those as head coach of the football team. He has amassed an impressive record as head coach, winning two national championships and become the all-time winningest coach in Division 1 college play. Along the way, he has stuck to a simple old-school formula of emphasizing high educational standards for his athletes and resisted fashionable trends in college athletics such as flashy uniforms and trash talk. Despite all of these achievements, JoePa is destined to be remembered for his part in the child sex abuse scandal which has ended his storied career.

When news of Paterno’s firing by the Penn State Board of Trustees reached Penn State students, they immediately took to the streets and rioted in support of their beloved coach. JoePa is a Penn State institution and they were not about to see him pushed out under a cloud of scandal. The young can be forgiven for their occasional transgressions due to their youthful exuberance and lack of wisdom that only comes with the experience of age. In this case, most only see the loss of football glory with JoePa’s firing that poses an immediate threat to their gratification. Some may be indignant at the way their beloved JoePa was unceremoniously fired over the phone after such a long life of service. Very few displayed any anger towards Paterno for this new and shameful legacy he has bestowed upon the institution of which they seek to become alumni.

The older and wiser among us instantly realized the need for Paterno’s firing for his lack of action in confronting the evil that surrounded him. During his tenure, JoePa had become the moral authority for Penn State due to his stringent observance of college sports rules and avoidance of the sports scandals to which so many other college sports programs had fallen victim. His program was squeaky clean and he intended for it to so remain. However, his failure to act more decisively upon learning from an eyewitness that his former defensive coach, a man who had been by his side for thirty years, was sodomizing a 10-year old boy in the Penn State locker room shower is unforgiveable for someone who had amassed such moral authority.

This was not a case where the act was thought to have occurred, or the accuser didn’t actually witness the act, or there were any circumstances whereby the event may have been something other than what it was. This was a case where a respected eyewitness, graduate assistant Mike McQueary, heard the sounds of sexual activity and actually witnessed retired Penn State Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky anally raping a ten-year old boy in the shower of the Penn State locker room. McQueary failed to stop the rape, but did report it to Paterno who reported it to school officials.

Paterno obviously did not do enough for a man of such moral authority at an institution that looked to him for moral guidance. This was evident in his lament that he “should have done more” when news about the scandal broke this week. University officials covered up the scandal for fear of the damage it would do to Penn State’s reputation. In this they acted the same as Catholic Church officials who covered up cases of child sex abuse by priests to protect the Church’s reputation. In both cases, the cover ups not only failed to hide the evil, but made the situations much worse by adding the evil of complicity by otherwise good people to the actual evil perpetrated by those collaterally protected in protecting the institutional reputations.

The Penn State Board of Trustees acted swiftly to control the damage to the university by firing Paterno and President Graham Spanier. They should have fired Assistant Coach Mike McQueary, who also failed to report the incident to the police, along with Athletic Director Tim Curley and university Vice President Gary Schultz who both failed to act after Paterno had reported the incident to them. These men all failed to report a serious crime for fear of the negative consequences arising from the ensuing scandal both for the university and personal relationships.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This paraphrase of an Edmund Burke passage is no more clearly demonstrated than in the failure to act by Penn State officials with intimate knowledge of evil, practiced by one of their own within the confines of their storied institution, which destroyed the innocence of children and betrayed their very mission of molding impressionable children into responsible adults. JoePa, that good man, that bastion of Penn State moral authority, did nothing when confronted by evil. He knows it and has expressed it. In time, the future alumni of Penn State will realize the shameful legacy bestowed upon their alma mater as it will be forever associated, along with the Catholic Church, with the evil of child sex abuse.

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