Sunday, November 20, 2011

Penn State Football and Joe Paterno

Yesterday, Penn State won its first game in almost 46 years without Joe Paterno as its coach. People in the know saw signs that this day would come either at the beginning of next season or the next. That it came mid-season after being fired is the shocker and the reason is heart-breaking.

The press has been all over the Sandusky sex story and Paterno’s illustrious career is forever tarnished. Questions regarding when he knew, what he did, why he did not do more will continue to be analyzed and debated. Those who are strong Paterno fans will continue minimize his culpability. On the other side, there will be those on the opposite size who will forever consider Paterno guilty of a tremendous crime and held just short of being the actual perpetrator of the sex acts. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

One thing that concerns me somewhat is that Paterno’s actions are being judged by 2011 expectations and standards, not by the American understanding and standards of the mid 1990s. While most of the existing laws regarding reporting of suspicions were already in place when Paterno was informed about Sundusky showering with young boys, what had not been fleshed out in the public’s mind was what is “reasonable” suspicion and how aggressive one should be on reporting that suspicion. In the intervening years “reasonable” has become defined more broadly and clearly so as to include that which was reported to Paterno. Only in the last five to ten years have background checks, working with children and reporting processes come into place at the street level.

Today, any suspicion or concerns must be reported and when reported it is expected that authorities will conduct a complete investigation. Today, it is expected that reporting something generally to one’s superior and walking away is not acceptable conduct. If one’s superior does not contact the authorities, then the reporter is responsible for taking such a step. Clearly Paterno did not meet these standards and he should have done more. Back then, such action were being done, but the expectation to do so was not at today’s level.

Throughout his career Paterno has preached doing the right thing in all aspects of one’s life even when it is most difficult and could cost you dearly. Paterno has noted he should have done more, and that statement may be his lasting epitaph. Child abuse is very significant, and must be taken seriously. We must not dismiss accusations lightly and when work related they must be reported not only to our supervisors but also to the authorities. Regardless of the laws and the understanding of the laws a decade or more ago, aggressive reporting has always been the right thing to do. In that regard Paterno did not measure up to what he drilled into his teams. With the score tied in the dying seconds of the game, Paterno fumbled the ball on the 1 yrd line with a poor handoff.

It would have been nice if Paterno had recognized the significance of his inaction and announced his immediate retirement, but he did not do so possibly because he thought he could ride out the storm or that not doing more to protect the children was not a major misstep. I commend Penn State’s Board of Trustees for dismissing Paterno. It needed to happen.

Paterno’s firing also sends a strong message, that no person regardless of his/her accomplishments, reputation or accumulated power is immune from being dismissed for a single egregious action. This is a good signal to send and reinforces a good message, that one egregious action outweighs all one’s accomplishments and can bring forth one’s dismissal.

Paterno no longer at the head of the Penn State football program also signals the end of an era, the coach for life. Very few coaches at the top tier schools in the NCAA have been in their positions for more than twenty years. I may need to be corrected on this but I think the new Dean of top tier coaches are basketball’s Jim Boeheim at Syracuse with 36 years and in football Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech with 25 years…neither of whom has anyone close to that number of years as coaches. Today the pressure to win each year is powerful. Alumni and fans will accept one or two bad years if you have been consistently at the top, but having three, people will start to call for your dismissal. Hence, head coaches with twenty or more years at the same school which is the past was not that uncommon will become increasingly rare.

Are shorter tenures a good thing? I’m not sure as it signals that the almighty dollar and winning are king principals that stand well above graduation rates, character building and players not running afoul of laws and NCAA regulations. I fear that we will all be poorer in the end with the win at all cost measure.


Barbara said...

by the mid 1990s reporting child abuse, especially sexual abuse was already manditory and by then not reporting it meant losing your job. I believe he chose to turn a blind eye to what was going on and in doing so, he allowed a monster to continue destroying lives of children. He should have lost his job ... it's just a shame that he didn't loose it sooner.

Dave said...

Barb, in many jurisdiction in the US, the laws were not as clearly defined, particularly as to whom it should be reported. Paterno did report it to his boss and even then what he reported may have been watered down or unclear.

Catharine said...

As an educator, I am expected to report to report my suspicions of child abuse. I am to phone directly child protective aqencies to inform them rather than relay it through a third party. If I suspect something and do nothing then I am held accountable. Perhaps this needs to be made clearer in state law, just as it is here.