It’s been a tough week to be a Penn State alum and fan, to be sure. With yesterday’s release of the Freeh Report I discovered that the man I had admired for so many years was far more deeply flawed and irresponsible than I had ever imagined. Sure, we all knew that Joe Paterno was an arrogant SOB, that was something that my family agreed on for years. We all felt that he should have retired 10 or so years ago and that by staying, he was doing the football program a serious disservice in the long-term. We knew that underneath that crooked smile and charming Brooklyn accent lay a tyrant. Yet, I would argue this – what great leader in any field – sports, business, or otherwise isn’t? After all, you really can’t care what people think about you or overly concern yourself with the consequences of your actions if you want to run a large organization efficiently. Don’t believe me? Give Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun a read. I believed that it was this “take no prisoners” attitude that led to his success on and off the Beaver Stadium Field. What I didn’t know was to what extent he had taken this leadership style and the victims it would leave in his wake.
“Oh, you’re in SUCH denial” the haters will say to me. Was I in denial about Paterno being flawed? No way. Was I in denial about to what extent he was flawed? You bet. They’ll also add scathing comments about the Penn State Football Machine and how too much emphasis on athletics vs, academics leads to this kind of scandal. I’ll let you look up the facts on your own, but suffice it to say – Penn State Football and Joe Paterno were at the core of a lot of the fundraising and academic success that the University achieved in past years. Pick your stat – graduation rate, alumni support, donations, player success after football – it will all bear out what I’m saying. Athletics and academics can often play quite successfully in the same sandbox. Oh and if you are a hater, I’m guessing it’s because: your team can’t seem to beat our team, your team doesn’t play in a division to even play our team, you are sick of hearing about “Dear Old State”, your cousin goes to Ohio State…whatever. Whatever the reason, you’re’ the one that’s making this about football, not me. You might also want to check your smugness at the door if you think your team is the pinnacle of academic ethics because no doubt the NCAA is just warming up and you don’t know what skeletons lie in your locker room. If you’re feeling smug because you were “right all along”, I’ll grant you that smugness for now. But if you’re feeling smug because you secretly wanted this to be the outcome, well that’s just not very nice.
Let’s be fair to the memory of Joe Paterno and to his loving and currently tortured family. Joe Paterno did thousands of things right. He straightened out kids that were headed down the wrong path, he supported injured players, he demanded (and got) academic excellence, he was good to players and their families, he led the university in multi-million dollar capital campaigns, and he held all of us Penn State students to higher standards. But I choose not to look at this situation as an income statement. I don’t believe that this situation cancels out all of that good – his record stands and those positive long-term effects don’t get wiped out. Nor do I believe that all of his good acts cancel out this one. There is no “net” figure by which we can judge Paterno – I choose to appreciate the good but open my mind about and condemn the bad. And let me also add that I don’t consider this to be an “act” I consider it to be, much to my dismay, a pattern of behavior. This is based on my skimming the Freeh Report more or less in its entirety. The complete disregard for the boys and the long-term damage they suffered through multiple acts and failures to act was beyond irresponsible, it was simply unconscionable.
It’s tempting to add a “yea, but he did…” after every accusation made about Paterno but to do so would be cruelly disrespectful to the young victims. But I will say this – the janitors who witnessed these boys being raped in the locker room don’t get a “yea, but…” either. I understand that the “football culture” is blamed on the fear they had in reporting it but as far as I’m concerned, that’s no excuse. One custodian said that he was a Korean War vet and had never seen anything so horrifying as a boy being sexually assaulted in the locker room. But he said nothing. What if it were your son? ’nuff said.
The University did the right thing by commissioning this report and they hired the right guy to do it, knowing full well the damage it could cause to the University and the potential ripples throughout the football program, school and alumni morale, fundraising, and the future of the university. As alums and fans we may not be happy about that this means, going forward, but I’m awfully glad that the Trustees made the difficult decision to open the kimono.
I could go on and on but instead, I think I’ll just focus on what I will learn from this and what I hope we will all learn. First, speak up if you see something and maybe even if you feel something is wrong. Of course, everything needs to be framed with fact to every extent possible, but look at the long list of people who suspected something wasn’t right. I work hard to protect my two wonderful children, I can only hope there are others out there willing to help me do that. Next, all power needs to be kept in check. Every organization that we work with professionally or as a volunteer gives us an opportunity to keep a sharp eye out for abuses of power. If you are a board member, take that responsibility seriously. Don’t just trust that the Executive Director or the President are handling it appropriately. Ask questions, get clarification, and push for more information if you don’t feel that you can make a decision based on what you have in front of you. If you were never given the opportunity to make a decision, speak up and not to protect yourself but to protect the organization. Sometimes even the most effective leaders need to be protected from themselves – Paterno sure did. Finally, let’s check our hypocrisy at the door. There are lots of organizations out there where blind eyes are turned to illegal and immoral behavior. Let’s not condemn this one without considering all of the others in our own lives that may be guilty, as well. There’s a tone at every organization, know what that tone is and realize it’s impact. Remember, also, that failure to act or speak up often serves as a “yes” vote for sketchy behavior.
Finally, I will pray for these victims and their families. The Trustee’s statement this week included, “The defenseless victims and their families are at the forefront of our thoughts and prayers. We are deeply sorry for the failure to protect these vulnerable young boys from the pain and anguish they suffered. At the same time, we are filled with admiration for the bravery shown by the young men and their families who came forward to ensure that justice will be done.” Well said.
So in the end, yes I am still Penn State Proud. My BA in Communications isn’t worth any less, nor is the time I gave to Sandusky’s Second Mile as a volunteer working with at-risk kids. My daughter is thrilled to participate in Penn State Soccer Camp this month, and my son is, at this writing, proudly wearing his Penn State hat. We’ll make it up to Beaver Stadium for a game when we can and when we can’t, we’ll gather round the tv on Saturdays this fall to watch the Nittany Lions and scream at the defense to force the fumble and beg the offense to complete a pass. We will cheer for the men that stuck with the team, and search the cheerleading squad for our neighbor, Ally Zimmerman. I’ll visit the campus and all my old haunts (Diner stickies, Baby’s burgers, and Creamery ice cream, for sure!). We’ll wear the blue and white and fly the PSU flag. I’ll wish hearty congrats to all of the high school grads who get accepted to PSU and I’ll give a big hug to the graduates who I will now call fellow alumni. I’ll be reduced to tears watching next year’s Thon highlights as Penn State students work for months to raise over $10,000,000 for children with cancer. To suggest that supporting Penn State is supporting child molestation is both inappropriate and inaccurate. Anyone who says or implies so should be ashamed of themselves. My pride goes beyond this scandal but includes it to the extent that I fully support the way my Alma Mater is handling it at the moment.
The Penn State Alma Mater includes the verse,
May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.
I commit to living this in my own life and hope that the University takes every measure to ensure that no future act brings shame to dear old State.
For the glory,
Colleen (Regan) Duerr, Class of 1990