Thursday, November 10, 2011


So Penn State's legendary coach Joe Paterno is out, as is the University's president, according to CNN earlier this evening. Lawyers, Guns, and Money, courtesy of Eschaton, makes an important observation:

These incidents were beginning to put a bit of a dent into Paterno’s previously squeaky clean image. Still in regard to job security, Paterno faced a much bigger problem. Big time college football is, despite the ridiculous battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton nonsense trafficked in by sportswriters who lionize men like Paterno, all about winning. And PSU wasn’t doing much of that at the moment — the team was coming off the worst two-season record the program had endured in 70 years.

Paterno was 75 years old. In the winter of 2002, he was for the first time dealing with genuine discontent in the PSU fan base about the state of the program. There were rumblings that, if he didn’t get things turned around soon, the administration would put serious pressure on him to quit. Then, on March 2nd, he got a phone call from a member of his staff, informing him that he had seen his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sodomizing a ten-year-old child in the football locker room (the staff member’s version of the conversation) or “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature” to the ten-year-old boy in the otherwise empty, locked building, at 8:30 on a Friday night (Paterno’s version, which he gave as sworn testimony before a grand jury).

It’s hardly speculative to conclude that, in March of 2002, Joe Paterno was well aware that, if what he had just heard about Sandusky became public, it would likely cost him his job — especially since a full-blown criminal investigation of the matter would probably reveal that Paterno knew about an earlier investigation of Sandusky in 1998, which was inexplicably dropped, shortly before Sandusky’s all-too-convenient “retirement” from the PSU staff. And Joe Paterno has always been better at holding onto his job than anything else.

It’s now clear Paterno did what he had to do to ensure that Mike McQueary’s revelation to his coach and quasi-father confessor, whose team he had co-captained a few years earlier, disappeared down the memory hole. And here we are today.

More here.

This is going to be talked to death for days, in both the corporate news media and in the sports media, so I've just got a couple of points.

First, this is what the Catholic Church should have done as soon as its higher-ups became aware how much cover up was going on. It's good to see Penn State's board of regents doing the right thing and moving to save the university a lot of future grief.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, how the hell could a guy like Paterno, who everybody pretty much agrees is a good man, do something so totally fucked up? How could he participate in covering up a child molestation?

On the one hand, every individual is, in the end, responsible for his own actions. But social context definitely played a role here. A couple of weeks ago, I addressed the notion that corporations may very well be owned and run by human beings, but the organizational imperatives under which those human beings work can very easily allow those corporations to behave in sometimes vile and very inhuman ways. So the questions I ask about Paterno in the paragraph above are very similar to the question "how can good people destroy the environment?" or "how can good people deny life saving medical care to the sick and dying?"

I mean, similar, but not quite the same--indeed, Paterno, as PSU's football god, wielded far more influence over the university than his paper-status as a sort of middle manager, or department chairman, would suggest. But the personal and organizational incentives are pretty much the same as within a corporation. Paterno's career was on the line. The football team was on the line. The university's reputation was on the line. All big time shit. Faced with the destruction of everything he had built, faced with tarnishing the image of the school for which he had worked for decades, I'm sure it was very easy for him to do...nothing. Which was exactly what he did. I mean, okay, he told his immediate higher-ups, who then hushed the whole thing, but he could have gone to the police, or the press, so his actions ultimately amounted to nothing.

This in no way excuses Paterno. He failed, badly. But it does shed some light on the complexity of individual human morality and the pressures it faces every day in various social contexts. We put ourselves in the same situation as Paterno's and it's, like, of course I'd call the fucking police, but we don't really think about weighing that against moving to destroy your own life in the process.

That is, it's really easy to be a moral person in the abstract. What's hard is being a moral person when it ends up putting you at a massive disadvantage in the life you've built for yourself. We'll never figure out how to make corporations behave in an moral way until we figure out how to address organizational disincentives for doing what everybody knows is right.