In no way do I defend or support Joe Paterno and the football program at Penn State that made him famous. However, all the fuss and furor over him covering up the pedophile predations of his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is misplaced. The fact is that Joe Paterno did exactly what he was hired to do, what his bosses in the administration and board of trustees wanted him to do, and what the students and alumni at the university demanded of him.
He protected and nurtured the image that Happy Valley existed in a perpetual Saturday afternoon. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh explains why in his investigation of the whole business:
The avoidance of the consequences of bad publicity is the most significant, but not the only, cause for the failure to protect child victims and report to authorities.The Freeh report also lists nine subsidiary reasons, but they all deal with maintaining the pristine reputation of Penn State and its football program. Penn State does not stand alone as a higher education institution that will go out and find buses, if necessary, to throw people under in order to avoid negativity publicity. The first commandment of higher education is to never let out any information that would disturb donors and alumni, especially the ones who donate.
While there is little disagreement that Joe Paterno and the administrators at Penn State totally dismissed any concerns about any possible victims and devoted their efforts to keeping the image of Happy Valley unsullied. But there is probably not a nigher education institution in the U.S. that hasn't sacrificed some people in attempts to avoid scandal and embarrassment for the institution. The first priority in higher education is not education and contributing to the human community. The first priority is maintaining the pretenses of the institution, not the reality of what it does and how well it does it.
In Joe Paterno's case, he contributed mightily for developing Penn State, as a New York Times reporter Pete Thamel put it, "from a being a state-centered university with 9,500 students to a booming, internationally renowned institution with nearly 45,000 students. The influence Paterno had on Penn State on and off the field is so vast that it is almost unquantifiable."
Paterno's influence and efforts were not limited to the football program. Thamel remarks upon Paterno's love of the classics and recounts his efforts in their regard at Penn State: "Paul B. Harvey Jr., the head of the university’s classics and ancient Mediterranean studies department, said that Paterno helped raise more than $150,000, some of it his own money, for his department over the years, essentially saving it from extinction."
But his positive efforts, as Thamel explains it, did not qualify Paterno for sainthood:
Paterno was not perfect. His players, especially for a stretch in the last decade, had too many brushes with the law. E-mails emerged in the wake of the Sandusky scandal that showed how Paterno attempted to bully and manipulate administrators. He had a short temper, cursed frequently and remained the team’s coach for far too long. In his final few years, he had little effect on the day-to-day machinations of the program. Paterno did not work nearly as hard at recruiting as many of his competitors, especially in his later years, but Penn State administrators, knowing what he had accomplished and built, swallowed hard and settled for having a living icon on the sideline.Those of us who have been college faculty know that the sports programs are a key to maintaining support and funding for the institutions. This applies to high schools, also. If academic programs are threatened, the public shrugs its shoulders and clucks in tongues. If the sports programs are threatened, then the public rises up and gets active, spouting all manner of stuff about character building and the like, and generally contributes to maintaining the programs. The fact is that the public seems quite willing to let academic programs fall by the wayside if it means the sports can be saved. So, faculty generally offer tacit support to athletic programs, even at some expense to academics in order to maintain some degree of function for academics.
An incident at the University of Colorado less than ten years ago illustrates the custom. Its football team had a woman place kicker who charged that she was sexually assaulted by male team members. The coach dismissed the allegations and commented snarkily about her performance as a kicker.
When the University wanted to award its retired professor Vine Deloria, Jr. an honorary degree for his scholarship and leadership in Native America studies, Deloria declined because of the way the football scandal was handled. He said the University's handling of the matter was an outrage and, "It's no honor to be connected to these people."
The devaluing of people and their sacrifice for excitements and delusions of the sports arena is an American value. In all the natter about the state of education, there is no mention whatever of the role that sports programs and their degree of support and attention have played in the quality of our classrooms.
Women place kickers and lost and forlorn little boys can be a detraction. As are students struggling away in squalid classrooms under the tutelage of harassed and harried teachers.
Compared to the attitudes and interests of the majority of people out there, maybe Joe Paterno was a saint. He did what was expected of him by the University and people, and at least he did something.