Monday, January 23, 2012

What Paterno Avoided Became His Epitaph

"Man, that was quick."

As America responded to the passing yesterday of legendary college football coach Joe Paterno, this seemed to sum up the general theme.

He'd only been diagnosed with lung cancer this past November.  He'd only been fired from his historic position at Penn State literally days before that.

Back then, the country was still reeling from news about his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.  Accusations of child molestation, a 50-count indictment, and lurid testimony from a fellow coach about a horrific shower scene he stumbled upon involving Sandusky and a young boy.

All in a football program whose motto, zealously crafted and guarded by Paterno himself, was "victory with honor."

After a 46-season career, building all of Penn State - not just its football program - into a national powerhouse, everything for the 85-year-old icon seemed to implode within a matter of days.  And now, merely three months later, Paterno is dead.  Yet another victim of lung cancer.  And probably a broken heart.

When Good Men Do Almost Nothing...

Officially, Paterno was never charged with any crime.  He had no clue about Sandusky's alleged pattern of child abuse until Mike McQueary, who witnessed the despicable shower episode, went to him with the news.  Paterno acted within the the requirements of Pennsylvania law - if not the spirit of ethical accountability - by simply reporting McQueary's testimony to his own superiors at Penn State.  He did nothing more about the matter, even though he could have.

Couldn't he?  Paterno wielded significant influence and authority at Penn State.  One would think that a man as devoted to his family, personal morality, community pride, and the school's honor as Paterno was would be as eager to make sure justice was secured regarding one of his former coaches as he was promoting the school's athletic and scholastic integrity.  Why didn't he, then, either confront Sandusky himself, or repeatedly pressure the school's senior administrators to do so?  Even if he didn't want to get personally entangled in the process, he would be excused for allowing the chain of command at such a large organization to deal with such accusations, if for no other reason than to legally protect both one's own self and the organization as a whole.  Indeed, the administrators who should have pursued the allegations against Sandusky didn't, and they've been rightfully charged with crimes.  But by all accounts - including Paterno's - he made a perfunctory, obligatory report, and never revisited anything related to McCreary's account ever again.

What may to him have seemed a satisfactory response at the time proved to be his own undoing.  Because even though it wasn't illegal for Paterno to shrug off McCreary's report, one would hope that a person as responsible for the welfare of young people as a college football coach is supposed to be would have had the same zero-tolerance for disreputableness among his coaching staff as among his players.  When Paterno was fired, it wasn't because he had broken any laws, it was because people were so incredulous that he could literally pretend the accusations against Sandusky in no way affected him.

Just over a week ago, on January 14, the Washington Post published an exclusive interview Paterno gave to Post reporter Sally Jenkins, in which the cancer-stricken, wheelchair-bound former coach provided some insight as to how he could assume such a thing.  Both he and McQueary have admitted that the account McQueary shared with him wasn't as graphic as what McQueary would later tell a grand jury convened to bring charges against Sandusky.

"You know, [McQueary] didn't want to get specific," a contrite Paterno recalled about the conversation they had regarding the Sandusky shower. "And to be frank with you, I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

By all accounts, Paterno is an old-fashioned Italian when it comes to matters of personal intimacy.  And, sure, there's nothing wrong with living a life in which you try to remain distanced from sordid tales of social dysfunction.  But Paterno was a college football coach at a major institution, and it was part of his responsibility to know about factors that could impact the kids he coached.  And that includes what his coaches were doing to other kids.

It Takes the Diligence of a Village

Undoubtedly, Penn State provided seminars to staff members on recognizing, reporting, and preventing child abuse.  Every large school conducts these programs not only at the behest of their insurance companies and human resource departments, but out of sheer desire to protect those who may not be able to protect themselves.  There's no way Paterno was not aware of the existence of child predators in society, and the abuse of power over kids by authority figures, even if such topics sent shivers up his spine whenever mentioned within earshot.  Such topics should rightly send shivers up anybody's spine, but that doesn't mean you pretend they don't exist.

Yet how many of us do the same thing in our own spheres of influence?  For example, how many of us scoff at church rules down in the childrens ministry areas designed to prevent unauthorized people from interacting with kids?  When I worked at a large church in the 1990's, at the dawn of modern child protection systems in large churches, it wasn't uncommon to have an unauthorized adult pitch a fit when they were refused access to a specific area, or told they couldn't sign-out a child because the parent who checked-in the child hadn't approved it.

If you're really interested in protecting your child, you'll follow the rules.  And if the rules don't make sense, then work with whomever's in charge to fix them.  More than likely, however, it's not the rules that are as onerous in these cases as are the parents.

One time, a parent involved in a heated custody battle after a protracted divorce fight tried to claim their child against the wishes of the other parent.  Thankfully, the person manning the discharge desk enforced the church's policy, and likely prevented the child from being abducted by the unauthorized parent.

Read more here:

I didn't work in the childrens ministry, so I didn't witness any of these situations first-hand.  I worked in the accounting office, and the only reason I heard about these problems was because parents complained to the church administration when they couldn't fudge the rules to benefit themselves... more often than not, to the detriment of child safety.

Now, obviously, rules imposed by churches and other organizations entrusted with the care of children are only as good as their logic and enforceability.  Stupid rules don't necessarily keep anybody safe, because of the irresistible temptation to ignore them.  And unenforced rules might just as well not exist at all.

But these are conversations that organizations need to have, regardless of the comfort level among affected parties.  The aloof Paterno-esque disposition that likes to pretend such crimes never happen cannot coexist with reality.  And even people of such mythic or idolized status as Joe Paterno cannot be held in such demagogic esteem that raw testimony such as McCreary's cannot be shared, however uncomfortably, with them.  Paterno could have even asked McCreary to follow-up on the incident if he was too baffled by it himself. 

As we all now know, McCreary did Paterno no favors by not being completely descriptive with what he saw.   And neither one of them did the victims in this situation any favors, either.  Whether the victims are the boys who've made allegations against Sandusky, or even Sandusky himself, who may yet be innocent of these allegations, no matter how unlikely that may currently appear.

Don't Walk Through Life Wearing Blinders

If Paterno's fall from grace teaches us anything, it is that if a person was ever able to march through their chosen career or life walk, doing whatever they wanted to do without allowing themselves to get bogged-down in the nitty-gritty dirty ancillary work involved with responsibility and accountability, you can't live that way any longer.  These days, all of us need to be aware of things happening around us.  If something is brought to our attention, even an unsubstantiated allegation involving possible harm to somebody else, we need to at least stop and make sure we do what we can to remediate the situation.

Apparently, Paterno wanted to coach, and that's all.  Unfortunately, he neglected to realize that coaching is much more than teaching kids how to excel in the mechanics of football.  It's nice - albeit quaint - that he was held in such high regard by his assistant coaches that McCreary apparently thought it would disrespectfully embarrass Paterno if he told him everything he saw.  But nice and quaint don't cut it anymore when we're talking about child abuse.  Nice and quaint isn't the world in which we live.

Yes, the response, "well, that was quick" may have been the first thing people thought of upon hearing of Paterno's passing yesterday.

But then, "it's just so sad" pretty much sums up the rest of everyone's reaction.

So sad, because for Paterno's legacy at least, it's an epitaph that didn't have to be.

So sad.

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