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Joe Paterno and Moral Arguments

Baseball is not the national past time, nor is it football. It is moralistic finger wagging. There's nothing we seem to enjoy more as a culture than standing up on our respective soapboxes and inform people of all of the grand moral choices we would have made had we been in someone else's shoes. Maybe you would have, but somehow I doubt it.

After reading the Freeh Report, I don't want to defend Joe Paterno. I don't think he really can be defended. He built a reputation on being a leader, and in his greatest test of leadership, he failed spectacularly. He chose to ignore what should not be ignored, all so he could protect his reputation and win some football games.

Though I do not think Paterno should be defended, that doesn't mean I don't think we shouldn't try to understand him. It's far too easy to say "I would've done X" when you're not that one who has to suffer the repercussions of those actions. And let's be frank, Paterno is not the first person to ignore child abuse, nor will he be the last. If anything, ignoring abuse is the societal norm. Speaking out requires courage, and we should praise those who have had the courage to come forward not just in the Sandusky case, but in any child abuse case.

Joe Paterno built his reputation not just on winning football games, but "winning the right way." He was regularly cast as Saint Joe, in contrast to those evil coaches like Barry Switzer. I'm not sure when Paterno stopped being a person and became more of a symbol, but it was long before I started paying attention to football. Unfortunately, Paterno wasn't just a symbol, he was a man. And men make mistakes.

It wasn't just that Penn St. cared too much about football, though that was partly it. It was that Penn St. cared too much about being morally superior. And once you put yourself up on the pedestal, you act like a statue. Penn St. couldn't act against corruption in their midst, because the concept that Penn St. might have corruption was almost unthinkable.

Of all of the acts of omission committed by Penn St. and JoePa, the one that hit me was that Penn St. didn't have an active compliance department.* Why would they? Penn St. was all that was good and perfect, and to break the rules was simply not possible. This is how rot and corruption happen, by believing it can't happen.

*BTW - if you're looking for the NCAA enforcement hook, this is it. The Freeh Report decimated Penn St's lackluster compliance efforts.

How did this happen? How did so many seemingly good people turn the other way? Were they that obsessed with winning? Or were they even more obsessed with their role as the Moral Compass of college football?

I'd like to think that this scandal couldn't have happened here, that the factors were unique to Penn St, and at any other school, someone would have come forward. But that's wishful thinking. It could've happened at any school that puts football ahead of all else. It could have happened anywhere at which people are not honest about their program.

I think it's safe to call Paterno's Grand Experiment, that football could encourage the academic mission, a complete failure. The name of the game is winning, and when winning is all that matters to a program, there is no need to cover up heinous crimes to protect the image of the program. It is not the desire to win at all costs which is at the root of the Penn State scandal, it is the desire to be morally superior while winning which caused this scandal. No scandal could ever happen at Happy Valley, so they simply pretended one wasn't happening.

Joe Paterno didn't want to retire because he didn't want to leave college football to the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the worlds. Unfortunately, college football would have been far better off had we left things to the men who only cared about winning. So would have been the children of Happy Valley.

I am not sure whether Penn State deserves the death penalty. I honestly don't care whether they take down his statue, though they have taken the halo off of his mural. But in the wake of the university's nearly completely tone deaf response to this scandal, perhaps it is best if Penn St football voluntarily shutters its doors.

Maybe then, they could regain some of that moral superiority. But that is probably gone forever.