FanPost

On Joe Paterno and Morality

I would like to preface this by saying that I am not a PSU football fan. In fact, as a fan of a pre-expansion Big 10 school, I actively pull for PSU's opponents far more often than not.

In the mountain of stuff that I have read about Paterno, it seems to me that a couple of fundamental points have not been addressed. I feel moved the day after Joe's passing to try and articulate them.

1. Among some, there seems to be this belief that in the eyes of glory-seeking fans, Joe's accomplishments in the win-loss column as a football coach shielded him from the moral consequences of his actions. This line of criticism fails to place sufficient weight in the moral dimension of Joe's accomplishments. Yes, he won a lot of games, but he also had an outsized role in shaping for the better, the characters of thousands of young men who played for him. More importantly, he dedicated his life to improving an institution that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in every way available to him. Even as a non-academic, Joe was a builder of an academic institution and that has an enormous moral dimension to it that needs to be thrown into the moral calculus over what happened to those poor boys.

2. It appears (and of course is subject to new facts coming to light) that Paterno's failure was not the direct result of a moral failing but rather the result of a failure of judgment. This was almost certainly not a case where there was an intent to deliberately mislead or cover up to save himself. Nor was Joe's failure to take additional action the result of an absence of courage. Rather, this seems to be simply a miscalculation of how best to deal with this situation. In fact, Joe dealt with it as someone who has devoted his life to bettering Penn State would be expected to, by running it up the institutional chain of command. Should he have followed up or personally intervened? In hindsight the answer is clearly yes. He can and should be criticized for this failure of judgment, but he should not be characterized as some sort of moral monster that tried to put football over molested boys.

3. This mistake of judgment however did stem from a certain and lesser moral failing, that of hubris. Joe hung on well past the appropriate time for him to go. You could make the argument that in the last years, Penn State was being used to build up Joe rather than Joe continuing to be effective in building up Penn State. if you are Joe, you owe it to the institution that you have worked so hard to support not to be a liability to it. Joe did truly seem to be blind to this, and did not have the self-awareness to walk away gracefully. I guess when people say that perhaps he died of a broken heart, it may well have been his acute awareness of this point in the end that really sapped his will.

The whole thing reads like a Greek Tragedy. In the final analysis, Joe was a great man who contributed in incalculable ways (tangibly and intangiby) to the community, the University and to the people who worked with him directly. He should be remembered that way, but also as an object lesson in the need to leave when it is time. I guess this is his final life lesson to all of us.

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