Copyright 2012 Doing the Right Thing
A Black Mark
Paterno, Penn State, and ethics
By: John S. Ehrett|Published: July 23, 2012 2:22 PM
This past weekend, a statue of celebrated NCAA football coach Joe Paterno was removed from outside the Penn State stadium. Paterno’s legacy, sadly, will be forever tainted by the sexual molestation scandal involving coach Jerry Sandusky. The damning Freeh report – a lengthy document drawn up by independent investigators – details Paterno’s role in covering up Sandusky’s behavior, and his repeated failures to respond appropriately. The statue’s removal is simply the latest act in an increasingly tragic story.
Only the most depraved members of society would condone Sandusky’s actions (and the ensuing cover-up). Why, then, has Paterno’s involvement sparked such controversy?
It is incontrovertible that Paterno, throughout his career, benefited the lives of countless individuals. He encouraged a greater balance between his players’ academic and athletic lives, donated millions of dollars to university programs, and served as a role model for many.
A number of ethical justifications have been offered by Paterno’s defenders, two of which deserve particular discussion.
All men have the capacity for great evil – to argue otherwise is to undermine the very concept of justice. When evaluating a life, however, a single instance of egregious moral failure may irreparably mar an otherwise laudable legacy.
Few remember the foreign policy accomplishments of Richard Nixon, important as they were. Instead, Nixon’s name has become synonymous with the Watergate scandal. For many, Bill Clinton’s reputation has been likewise besmirched, thanks to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. It is undoubtedly unfortunate that his contributions to bipartisan discourse are so often overlooked…but his acts of adultery and perjury fundamentally compromise his legacy.
It is always a danger to idolize any human, whether that be a Founding Father or a football coach. Much has already been written about the various moral failings of our nation’s leaders…understandable, given man’s natural proclivity towards vice. All acts of wrongdoing may be condemnable, but not all are equally vile – at least when quantified in terms of human suffering and lasting impact. The extent of certain moral harms may be so egregious as to outweigh the positive aspects of one’s life story. The failure to properly investigate reports of child molestation rises to that level.
Loyalty is a praiseworthy virtue only insofar as it is directed toward a moral end. The “loyalty” of drug cartel members to one another is not an inherent good – in fact, invoking “loyalty” is often a convenient excuse for ethical weakness (unwillingness to report a friend’s drug abuse, for instance). Principles must take precedence, even at the risk of great personal cost.
Furthermore, the ethical stakes are raised when one is placed in a position of leadership. Administrators, ultimately, bear responsibility for the actions of their subordinates. When one’s subordinate is accused of wrongdoing – particularly a crime as grotesque as child molestation – it is imperative that such claims be investigated, even if the accused party is one’s friend. To argue otherwise is to compromise all notions of accountability: the understanding that if one level of authority fails, the next will intervene to restore justice.
Certainly all individuals – from presidents to laborers – leave a legacy behind them. Unfortunately, it is far easier to ruin a legacy than to establish a strong one. It has often been said that trust may take a lifetime to build, but only seconds to destroy…and the same is true in this case. No one denies that Paterno did many good things… but he also turned a blind eye to sexual abuse occurring on his watch. For that, he has been justly censured.
What lessons does this case hold for Americans?
First, that one must be willing to challenge evil, no matter where it may be found. Modern society has deified the principle of “not causing offense” – even when condemnation of evil is absolutely required. This is a disturbing trend that must be resisted; innocent lives often hang in the balance.
Second, that a single reprehensible decision may overshadow a lifetime of good deeds. All actions – no matter how seemingly trivial – may have far-reaching consequences for both the lives of others and for one’s ultimate legacy. Care and consideration is warranted when making ethical judgments.
Third, that the light of justice will often expose things done in secret. Concealment may appear to be an easier course than confrontation…but as the Paterno story highlights, the truth has a way of slipping out.
The unfolding molestation scandal has spotlighted a number of horrible actions – both the perpetration of abuse and the failure to react appropriately. Hopefully, future generations will consider this tragedy a critical moment of warning: even our heroes are not immune from moral decay.
Standing against evil may be a hard and painful course…but the alternative is far worse.