The child sex abuse scandal at Penn State forced the University’s hand and they fired long time head-coaching icon Joe Paterno last night. He had agreed to resign at the end of the season but that was not soon enough for PSU. They were right. And to those hundreds of students protesting and chanting “One More Game” for Joe to stay to coach this year’s season ending home game against Nebraska, this weekend, I can only say this “What are they teaching you there?” My son who is a senior at PSU and bleeds Nittany Lion blue is devastated over this of course but had told me early on that Joe had to go.
Let’s get this straight – Paterno coaches football. He does not cure people, he does not fight fires, he does not lead a nation. He gets very highly paid to a particular job which he does particularly well – he is a legend, no question about it. But he is a coaching legend. Let’s keep some perspective here. It is crazy that as an afterthought all the news channels are adding that Graham Spanier,the President of the University, was also asked to step down. The Board of Trustees’ decision to end the careers of these two individuals was unanimous. It was also a no brainer.
As lawyers who get involved in representing institutions and individuals facing these kind of situations know, crisis management requires both short term and long term decisions to help get your client back on track. Call it “spin” or ‘damage control” or “reputation management” any phrase you like, its important to get public perception back in your favor as much as possible by showing that you are addressing the situation seriously. Been there, done that. But that is not what I am talking about. This decision was a no brainer because of the reprehensible actions of Paterno and others at PSU that turned a deaf ear and blind eye to defensive coordinator’s Joseph Sandusky’s pattern of child abuse. Back in 1992 (nearly 20 years ago) an assistant coach came upon Sandusky and a 10 year old boy in the PSU locker room shower. The assistant testified before a grand jury that he observed them having anal intercourse. He told his Dad and then told Joe Paterno. Paterno now states that he was only told of “fondling” and “grappling” not sex which is why all he did was tell the Athletic Director at the time. I don’t believe Paterno, but lets give him the benefit of the doubt. Your defensive coordinator was naked in the PSU locker with a 10 year old child. He may have been “fondling” and “grappling” with the child. You don’t call the police to investigate? You don’t follow up with Sandusky personally? You allow him to continue coaching right next to you without explaining his conduct? Ridiculous. Inexcusable. Indefensible. Especially when you consider that Pennsylvania, like most other states, has a mandatory reporting law that requires educators to report suspected child abuse to the appropriate governmental authorities. But who needs a law to tell them you should report someone behaving inappropriately with a 10 year old child. That the person would do so in a public place like the PSU locker room shows how far gone his behavior has gone. This is someone practically begging to be caught or so out of control that his judgment is totally off kilter.
But Paterno’s and other’s decision to look the other way allowed Sandusky to continue to abuse children. What can PSU ever do to undo that harm? Nothing. Sure they will be sued, but a child abuse victim never fully recovers; its a lifelong scar that often perpetuates similar behavior so the cycle never ends. PSU will be left scarred as well. But these students who are upset that Joe was not allowed to coach the last home football game of the season should put themselves in the place of the abused kids and their parents who undoubtedly think Joe Pa has already coached more games than he should have.
In 1901,Penn State Professor Fred Lewis Pattee wrote the school’s official song “Dear Old State.” All of the administrators, coaches, staff and students involved in this tragedy would do well to read the last verse of the song:
May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.