Character? What Character?

Posted: July 18, 2012 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I just can’t look away.  The Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal is rocking the sports world, and the ethical, social and economic questions that it raises have me thinking.

Students and fans celebrate Joe Pa.

First of all, I am not going to recap the scandal, or deal with Sandusky. He will be spending the rest of his life in prison, and no one in their right mind feels that is not just.  That part of the scandal is black and white; the more difficult question centers around Joe Paterno, the face, football coach and benefactor of Penn State since the mid 1960s. What has dumbfounded me is that when journalists, commentators, athletes, coaches, and general fans discuss Paterno, they constantly return to one question: How will Paterno’s assisted cover up of a child predator affect his ‘legacy’?    I would hope there would be no controversy. His ‘legacy’ is now the scandal.  Case closed. Everything else he has done pales in comparison.

Many disagree. Here is what Matt Millen, a former PSU player said on ESPN after the damning Freeh Report was released last week: “My opinion is he (Paterno) made a mistake.…He (Paterno) made a mistake and it was compounded and it was over a course of time…What means something to me is what he (Paterno) stood for. And what he was. And the character part and the character side of what he was. And what he stood for was significant….It (the report) shows he was fallible…He made a mistake for whatever his reasons are. Is it spoiled? It’s absolutely spoiled but there is still a lot of good there.”

Coach K.

Millen is by no means alone in the sports world in his defense of Paterno’s ‘character’.  Perhaps the most famous person to speak out in this way was the active dean of college basketball coaches, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K).  A month ago, Coach K made it known that he thought the firing of Paterno last year after the scandal broke was not handled properly by the university.  “You had somebody who’d given six decades of service to the university and done such an incredible job…Somehow, you have to let – something has to play out and respect the fact that you’ve gone through all these experiences for six decades. And it doesn’t just go out the window, right at the end.”  In other words, ‘JoePa did lots of good, and some bad, and we shouldn’t let the bad overshadow all the good.’ Coach K is correct in his pop-philosophy that we ‘all make mistakes’; that we are all sinners and saints. His ethical philosophy falls short though with his misunderstanding that all sins are equal, and all sins can be washed away by our good deeds.

What I see here is a problem that goes beyond Paterno, and strikes at the heart of big-time athletics. Moneyed athletics seem to lack of an understandable moral hierarchy. When an athlete is important enough, small transgressions and large moral failings often mean the same thing: an athletic slap on the wrist. Insignificant slips such as public intoxication have the same consequences in the sports world as disturbing behavioral patterns, such as physically attacking your own mother.  The athletes may face different legal repercussions (notice I write MAY), but athletically, the punishment is often the same no matter what they have done.  They are made to sit for a quarter/half/game, and cheered like mad by the hometown fans when allowed to come off the bench, out of the doghouse.

I always assumed there was a limit to this type of situation.  Assault people regularly enough, and you will see your career end; your reputation ruined. In other words, the moral hierarchy of our world would eventually catch up with the ethics of athletics. However, the response to Paterno throws this into question, and unnervingly so. By covering up for a sexual predator of children, Paterno should fall within the abyss of moral approbation on all counts. In any other line of work or society, this would be the case; but not athletics. Instead, when Joe Pa was fired last year, thousands of fans took to the streets, others ‘mourned’ at his statue (that is right, statue), and athletes were abuzz on the twitter-verse saying how unjust all this was to poor ol’ Joe. They obviously thought, as with other realms of athletics, he should be forced to sit on the bench for a quarter, thus serving his penance. As the role of Joe Pa becomes more damning in this scandal, his defenders often hold even tighter to such beliefs.

Up is down, and down is up in such a world and these topsy-turvy ethical standards are making me feel a little nauseous.

  1. Sean Breslin says:

    I think it’s hard to use anyone’s quote from a month ago about this case, because so much has changed in the last month. Coach K probably thinks something different now, just as we all do.

    • Michael says:

      Sean, first of all, thanks for following the Turtle.

      In reply to your comment, I think you have a point. I believe K has responded with more criticism of Joe Pa after the Freeh report came out. However, I think you are missing the point of his original apology for Joe. One month ago, K did not say Joe Pa had nothing to do with the cover up; or that Joe Pa was completely innocent in the scandal. He, like most right-thinking individuals, realized that Joe Pa had some role to play in the cover up, if only by simply not reporting Sandusky, and making sure the guy could not use PSU as a base of operations for his actions.

      Instead, what K said is that Joe Pa may be a guilty in the Sandusky scandal, but he did so many great things for PSU that those good things should have afforded Joe Pa a level of respect when it came to the end of his career. My point is, this is a moral failing on K’s part. Doing great things in your life for 80 years does not wash away the sins of your 81st year if those sins are serious enough. This was a case of one coach, giving another coach a pass based upon his profession.

  2. Ben says:

    I think this issue has more to do with the fact that the culture of PSU is like a cult, and Paterno is worshiped like a god there, than it does with the nature of college athletics. Being from Pennsylvania I have first hand experience with PSU fans and criticizing Paterno is like telling a religious extremist that god is bad or doesn’t exist.

    • Michael says:

      Ben, thanks for following the Turtle.

      I agree that the culture of PSU football has much to do with the blind devotion to Joe Pa. What strikes me though, is that PSU fans are not the only apologists. Instead, it is often athletes, or those involved in the athletic realm that excuse ‘one mistake’ of Joe Pa for all the ‘good’ he has done. The latest to do this was Gary Pinkel, the head FB coach at Missouri. Yesterday, Pinkel said, Joe Paterno’s a friend that I got to know professionally, and you can’t take away the greatness of this man…Paterno was a great man. However you analyze this, you can’t erase all that this guy’s done. You can’t do that. Nobody can do that.”

      That is BS. OF COURSE this takes away the “greatness of this man.” If this scandal doesn’t take away his greatness, what exactly will? When we find bodies in Joe Pa’s basement? Come on.

      This is bigger than PSU and some stupid drunk college kids protecting Joe Pa’s statue.

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