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Paterno and Penn State: A Matter of Integrity

Sexual Abuse at Penn State Raises Questions About the Integrity of the Institution

Integrity is a basic characteristic of an honest person – a principled person – one who does not stand idly by while others violate basic societal norms and standards. A person of integrity does not allow another person, such as a supervisor, to make the final decision on a matter that involves moral behavior when such behavior is ignored. A person of integrity does what is necessary to stop harmful acts; goes above the heads of higher-ups who ignore the allegation of a wrongful action; and, as the ultimate step, engages in external whistleblowing to inform those who might put an end to immoral action. A good example is to bring a matter of concern to the attention of the police, a regulatory agency, or even the newspapers. It is in this context that I examine the behavior of Assistant Coach Mike McQueary and head coach Joe Paterno in the Penn State scandal.

Former Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, raped a 10-year old boy in the Penn State locker room around 9:30 pm on March 1, 2002, and the crime went unreported for years. The despicable act is that much more despicable because he offended eight  boys over a 15-year period all of whom were part of a charity started by Sandusky for disadvantaged kids known as the Second Mile.

All of the attention is now on Assistant Coach Mike McQueary who had witnessed the inappropriate sexual activity. Under oath, McQueary told a grand jury that he saw the rape take place. Not only did he not break up the sexual assault, he didn't call the authorities. Instead, McQueary called his father, and told head coach Joe Paterno. When faced with a situation of child rape, McQueary chose to leave the scene. If all the reported facts about the case are accurate, the 10-year-old boy needed McQueary's help, and the then-28-year-old aspiring coach chose himself, Sandusky, and the reputation of Penn State at the time, over saving the boy.

From an ethical perspective, it was McQueary's moral responsibility to report and stop Sandusky from harming other boys. He was the main witness to the alleged sexual assault. Though he reported it to Paterno, he knew that Sandusky wasn't brought to justice. Sandusky faces 40 counts of alleged sexual abuse of young boys over the 15-year span.

McQueary, Paterno, and Penn State officials might have prevented several boys from being sexually assaulted if they simply picked up the phone and called the police. McQueary did not act with integrity. His actions were self-serving as he looked out for the interests of Penn State, not those of the abused boy. He did not take the extra step required of a person of integrity and inform those who would have taken action – the police or the local press. A young boy’s mental and physical state was at stake and that trumps bad press for Penn State.

As for the Paterno matter, the decision of the Penn State Board of Trustees to fire legendary and much loved iconic football coach Joe Paterno was painful for some to accept. After all, Paterno had just announced his retirement at the end of the year, after his 46th season as head coach. He had just become the winningest coach in college football history – 409 victories. He is loved by all at Penn State – by the university community, and throughout the state of Pennsylvania. But, is that a good reason not to fire a coach who was told of the sexual abuse of a 10-year old boy in 2002 and did not take any action that might have prevented such a tragedy in the future? Paterno knew nothing was being done by University higher-ups and didn't take any action other than to make the initial report. This is not how a person of integrity should act.

During the past several days Paterno's reaction to the public disclosure of the scandal has changed from basic denial to basic regret. Responding to the scandal that has overtaken his university and his program, Paterno said in a statement released on Sunday, November 6 that he acted appropriately with the information he had in 2002 regarding child sexual abuse allegations against his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky.

"If true, the nature and amount of charges made are very shocking to me and all Penn Staters," Paterno said. "While I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention, like anyone else involved I can't help but be deeply saddened these matters are alleged to have occurred."

“As my grand jury testimony stated, I was informed in 2002 by an assistant coach that he had witnessed an incident in the shower of our locker room facility. It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report.”

“Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky. As Coach Sandusky was retired from our coaching staff at that time, I referred the matter to university administrators. I understand that people are upset and angry, but let's be fair and let the legal process unfold.”

After almost a week of scrutiny of his actions by the media and with time for personal reflection, Paterno said on Friday, November 6: "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." To me, this is the reaction of someone who got caught after the fact and is now trying to "save face;" but he did nothing while the reprehensible events took place.

It's hard to feel sympathy for McQueary, Paterno, and the others who were involved with the scandal when considering the irreparable damage their inaction has done to Sandusky's alleged victims. Paterno should have known better. Football coaches are first and foremost, educators. Paterno was viewed as a father figure; therefore the nickname, “Joe Pa.” Paterno failed the integrity test because he was the one person who unquestioningly would have been believed if he had stepped up to the plate and insisted action be taken.

Supporters might say that Penn State should have let him play out the string of remaining games that will include a Bowl game. We could say that Penn State should have allowed him to leave with dignity. However, we also could say he failed to act on egregious behavior by Sandusky that changed the lives of the offended young people in an unspeakable way. ESPN college football analyst Chris Spielman summed it up well when he said Paterno was a good man who made a bad choice and now he has to own it.

Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 14, 2011