Friday, November 11, 2011
Defending Joe Paterno in the Court of Public Opinion (For Now)
There were no planes crashed into Pennsylvania State University buildings this week, no fights for control of aircraft over the bare mountains this side of State College, and Joe Paterno's physical body was not destroyed. In every other important sense though, many people were paying serious mind to destroying something that is grand--the legend and legacy of football coach, Joe Paterno.
We study entrepreneurship in Economics. I define the concept in its purest and best sense as "ruthless attention to success without being immoral or unethical." As you read what comes next, do it with this American ideal close at hand: A person is innocent until proven guilty. Now I am defending Joe Paterno in the court of public opinion, not a court of law. As such, I do not ask you to suspend disbelief or limit yourself to only things that are permissible in court. On the other hand, I insist that you not conclude based on logical inference, or your own experiences, unless they are supported by the facts that are available. He is charged with something in this most chaotic of courts--either a cover up or a criminally lackadaisical approach to child pedophilia. Either would be sufficient to undermine claims that he has been a great leader and entrepreneur in the purest and best sense. For now, I have not seen adequate evidence that he is guilty of either.
I want you to read the Grand Jury investigation report into the activities of a Mr. Jerry Sandusky and participants in (or victims of) his Second Mile program. Consider it Exhibit A. Sandusky was once the defensive coordinator at Pennsylvania State University. Don't worry if I didn't spit out the proper title, you will find it quickly by Google search. Let me caution you, it is graphic. Even if you are like me, a forty-seven year old tough guy, rest assured you will need facial tissue long before you arrive at the twenty-third page.
Once you have read it, and are trying to make it look like you really weren't sobbing at the horrors committed by Mr. Sandusky against those innocent little boys, think about all of the ways it might have gone down, and all of the ways it might not have. Someone didn't prevent Jerry Sandusky from having access to the Pennsylvania State University facilities, but who...and why? A crime was committed, there were just too many failures to report things that law enforcement needed to know. But is there anything in the Grand Jury report that clarifies that it was Joe Paterno who silenced those with a duty to speak or kept allowing Sandusky into the facilities?
Here are Exhibits unrelated to the charges against Paterno I offer in support of his ruthless attention to success without being immoral or unethical:
Exhibit B - The Football program has always posted high graduation rates (as high as 87 percent over the most recent period).
Exhibit C- The men he coached: Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Daniel Sepulveda, and Paul Posluszny, to name a few, continue to offer him their respect and deference in opportunity after opportunity.
Exhibit D- Pennsylvania State University has had no major NCAA infractions or investigations under Paterno's 45 years of leadership.
Exhibit E - I'm not aware of any time a Paterno team scored more than 60 points in a game. They don't run up the score.
Exhibit F - I grew up a Pitt fan (Dad graduated in 1961). Year after year of pulling for Pitt in the big rivalry (and usually being disappointed), I came to a startling revelation. Paterno had something there. His players seemed to love him. The students and fans were loyal, and indeed the continuity was making Penn State a cut above the other programs. In a particularly touching moment, sometime around the year Woody Hayes decked a Clemson kid for intercepting a pass, Joe Paterno did the unthinkable: he cried...on national television! The reason? His team lost. Now here it seemed, was a leader. A man who could show us tears for his players, and ruthless attention to success, all at the same time.
Now precisely what evidence does the other side offer of Paterno's failure as an entrepreneur or a leader? No one is suggesting that he himself was terrorizing little boys. Many bloggers, sportscasters and others focus instead on the cover-up. Their evidence? Only the logical inference that Paterno must have been involved in a cover up--as if every time something horrible happens, you can assume the most highly respected person who could have benefited from doing it (or in this case not doing it) must have, without further investigation.
Actually, the most damning piece of public information (that I have seen) regarding Coach Paterno is in the Grand Jury report itself. That report describes a 2002 encounter where Paterno is alerted by a graduate assistant to a crime committed in the Pennsylvania State University shower by Mr. Sandusky. The other side's argument is that Paterno didn't do anywhere near enough when made aware of this event. Perhaps, but remember the American standard of justice--innocent until proven guilty--and see Exhibit A.2 below.
I offer two more exhibits illustrating lack of evidence of Paterno's failure as an entrepreneur and leader rather than support of his success. These are from the Grand Jury Report. Let's title them A.1 and A.2:
Exhibit A.1 - From the grand jury account, and various media reports, it is clear that Coach Paterno told Mr. Sandusky in 1999 he would never be the head coach at Penn State. Sandusky resigned immediately. This coincides with the timing of a security investigation done into Mr. Sandusky's illicit affairs with the Second-Mile program, and its young participants. But there are no answers here, only questions. Why did Coach Paterno tell Sandusky he would never be the head coach? Were rumors swirling? And what if Paterno was not aware of the security investigation, only the rumors? Would you call Paterno's moves to distance Sandusky from the football program an enabling technique in that event?
Exhibit A.2- Paterno was neither a witness to Sandusky's 2002 crime nor was he Sandusky's supervisor according to the Grand Jury report. He received an account of this on a Saturday morning from a graduate student (at home), and called his supervisor to his house on Sunday morning to report the incident. Does this sound like someone trying to do the minimum and sweep it under the rug? I suppose it might, but on the surface it sounds swift and attentive to me.
Two leaps to conclusion have swirled around this story that unnerve me. If you read the blogs, newspaper opinions, etc., there seems to be this view that Paterno had incredible power. With one phone call to the police, he could have had Jerry Sandusky arrested and put away, but held back. As I've mentioned before, the second is because Joe stood to benefit from the image of a squeaky clean program and appeared to have this iron hold on Pennsylvania State University's day-to-day activities, he was obviously working to cover-up the Jerry Sandusky story while enabling him to torture more young boys.
I'm asking you to consider the third possibility. The chance that Paterno is the man we thought he was all along. A guy who either didn't fully understand Sandusky's vile nature, or didn't have the power to completely dispense with him. Given the 2002 Grand Jury account, if nothing else, this demonstrates a personal shortcoming. Among the differences in Paterno's account of the incident and the graduate assistant's account, there is no disagreement that the graduate assistant reported "something of a sexual nature" involving Sandusky and a boy. In other words he saw some kind of crime. Paterno reported it as described earlier, but didn't make sure it got to the police as he could have. However, if this is the extent of Paterno's involvement in the crimes, it is proof of his fallibility, but not a justification for overturning his legacy.
On the other hand, I accept that evidence of Mr. Paterno's involvement in a cover-up of Mr. Sandusky's actions may be forthcoming. He would have had much to gain from it. If we are compelled to accept that a cover up by Paterno must have happened without evidence of its truth, though, then we risk destroying an inspiring leadership and entrepreneurship story that should have only been footnoted. When we move beyond fables and children's stories even the best leadership stories have inglorious footnotes, reminding us that people can be heroic, but not God-like. Whatever comes to light at Pennsylvania State University, wherever Joe Paterno fits between thug and hero, we must get to the bottom of it. We must never accept that the only difference between heroes and thugs is that the former haven't been caught yet.
Throughout the past week I have often felt like a victim. I share that with the kids that demonstrated at Pennsylvania State University earlier in the week. While I can't speak for them, I can tell you that I haven't appreciated the logic leap many have tried to force upon me that Paterno must have been covering for Sandusky. The evidence isn't there (yet?). It also troubles me that I may have been admiring a thug for the last 40 years. However, we aren't the victims. The victims are the somewhere between eight and 100 boys that Jerry Sandusky was able to abuse because of a conspiracy of silence--a conspiracy that Joe Paterno, arguably the most ethical man in football, played a role in. I want to know as much as I can about that role--was he a naive, old icon that could have done more, or a thug trying to preserve his legacy at the expense of at least eight pre-teenage boys? However, I will not rush to judgement.