Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa’s Memorial Service

At least Albert Speer didn't have a clear conscience.

I did not expect the speakers at Joe Paterno’s emotional memorial service to avoid stepping on  some of the myriad ethical landmines that lay before them. It was a time to say good things about the late Penn State coach, and there is plenty to say. Still, two speakers did cross deep into unethical territory. Even at a memorial service, when the lessons of the Jerry Sandusky affair are so important for all to learn and accept, it was poor judgment and irresponsible for those honoring Paterno to try to minimize or deny his accountability in the tragedy.

Unethical Statement #1: Nike Co-Founder and Chairman Phil Knight. “Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me: There was a villain in this tragedy. It lies in the investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.”

This got a standing ovation, a reaction every bit as offensive as the Penn State student riots after Paterno’s firing, indeed more so. Knight’s rationalization excuses every Enron executive who knew that the leadership was defrauding investors; every Bernie Madoff family member and enriched investor who knew something was wrong but waited for the SEC to act; every member of the Nixon White House who saw the rule of law being trampled but reasoned that since he wasn’t directly involved, there was no reason to speak up; every member of Congress who knew that Rep. Mark Foley was sexually harassing House pages and kept quiet; and every priest who knew that a colleague was sexually molesting boys and did nothing, because the Church leadership was doing nothing. Knight’s defense of Joe Paterno is a defense of all of these, and indeed a defense of evil. Edmund Burke said it as perfectly as it can be said: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Joe Paterno was a good man who let evil triumph. When the crowd stood to applaud, it might as well have been applauding Albert Speer.

Unethical Statement #2: Jay Paterno, Joe Paterno’s son: “Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience.”

Really? Well, that’s good to know. If true, then Paterno wasn’t a good man after all. In his last interview, all Paterno would agree to was that with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he did done more to stop Sandusky, rather than what he did, which was to stay quiet for nine years, never making a move to protect children who he had ample reason to know were in peril. How will the parents of the children Sandusky molested feel about Paterno’s clear conscience? I suspect they will feel exactly the way the parents of molested altar boys would  feel if the various bishops and Cardinals who enabled the priests who abused their boys announced that they, like Paterno, had clear consciences.

“I did what I thought was right at the time” is not an excuse…not when someone should have known that it was wrong at the time. This wasn’t moral luck in action: Paterno had knowledge that gave him every reason to fear for the boys Sandusky was seeing every day. If there hadn’t been any further child abuse, that would have been moral luck. Paterno’s conduct would have still been unethical, but in such a case would not have caused any actual harm because of occurences he did not control.

If Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience, then he never understood what was wrong—horribly wrong—with what he did and didn’t do. That’s nothing to be proud of.

Why is Jay Paterno proud of it?

36 thoughts on “Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa’s Memorial Service

  1. Jack, will you admit that a clear conscience can sometimes stem from obliviousness? Don’t be a lawyer on this; admit that apart from the law, as with a child or even as with an adult at times, ignorance CAN be an excuse.

    • I’m not Jack, but I’ll admit to it. Of course, that doesn’t apply in this case. It’s not like any more information came out about Sandusky. When he wished he would’ve done more, he had the same knowledge as when he didn’t do more.

      Well…unless he only wished he would’ve done more because it became a scandal. That wouldn’t really help his case.

      • “Of course, that doesn’t apply in this case.”

        How can any of us know with certainty that it doesn’t apply in this case?

        “When he wished he would’ve done more, he had the same knowledge as when he didn’t do more.”

        I agree with your statement. But still, we don’t know all of what he knew or could have known. We really don’t even know all of what he did or didn’t do, and whether he could have ethically (or legally) done it. We may conclude that we know “enough” by way of the grand jury report, to come to more conclusions. I will admit that. But, we cannot claim to know all of what he meant when, in his interview, he referred to what he didn’t do (or didn’t do enough of). Therefore we would be jumping to a conclusion to judge that he was not innocently oblivious.

        I am striving not to be a lawyer, or even lawyer-like, on this. There is a concept of action – “due diligence” – that “probably, almost certainly” applies to Paterno in relation to what he may or may not have been obligated to do at particular times, with regard to McQueary and Sandusky. I am trying to uphold the point that whether or not one has fulfilled due diligence is contestable and more specifically, that whether or not Paterno fulfilled his due diligence obligations is, despite all we know or believe we know, not a sufficiently resolved issue to conclude so much of what many here and elsewhere are (I believe – possibly because of confirmation bias) reading into what is known plus what Paterno said.

    • Sure, although just as “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” neither is ignorance of right and wrong. Besides, that’s not what Jay was saying, was it? He wasn’t saying, “Poor old Dad still thought he did the right thing, because, let’s face it, he was clueless.” Jay was saying that his conscience was clear because Joe didn’t do anything wrong. And that’s not true.

      • “…just as “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” neither is ignorance of right and wrong.”

        I think you “went lawyer” on me. Aren’t you denying an essence of innocence there?

        WHO KNOWS what Jay meant?! You know…pontificating about what was said at Paterno’s funeral or other memorial events is, to me, eerily and creepily reminiscent of something Westboro Baptist Church might do. Not to get too far off track, but here’s a prime example that reminds me of something Jesus said that I especially like, about “let the dead bury the dead.”

        • Puzzling argument. What about “he had a clear conscience” is ambiguous? I presume people mean what they say. He sure didn’t mean, “He was wracked with guilt over the fact that that he might have been able to save one or more children from abuse.”

          Ignorance of right and wrong, what ever its import, has to be an inapplicable defense for a man whose reputation was based on his reverence for ethical conduct! That said, it is a defense when someone is incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, because of youth or defect. If an adult is capable of acting on the difference, the fact that he never bothered to learn that something was wrong—say, he grew up believing that it was right to kill African-Americans—does not make him innocent. Just as citizens have an obligation to know what is illegal, human beings have an obligation to know what is right.

          • “What about “he had a clear conscience” is ambiguous?”

            Sure, I’ll admit to that. I presume that people try to say what they mean – whether they are duped, or deluded, or oblivious (now or in the past), or lying, or trying to deceive further in an attempt to get away with previous lying, or trying (even if failing) to speak accurately on behalf of someone else…I just don’t want the analysis and speculation about Paterno’s culpability (because that’s all that’s left for us to do now) to degenerate any further into seeming like peeing on Paterno’s grave, or peeing on the shoes of anyone paying Paterno “final respects.”

            “Just as citizens have an obligation to know what is illegal, human beings have an obligation to know what is right.”

            Fair enough. Human beings do strive, and do fail, to fulfill their obligation to know what is right. I was trying to address that in an earlier reply to tgt.

  2. If true, then Paterno wasn’t a good man after all. In his last interview, all Paterno would agree to was that with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he did done more to stop Sandusky, rather than what he did, which was to stay quiet for nine years, never making a move to protect children who he had ample reason to know were in peril.

    What you seem to be forgetting is that not staying quiet absent at least an arrest, let alone an indictment, could have opened up Penn State to a defamation or slander suit by Sandusky.

    Look, nobody is claiming that it was acceptable for Mike McQueary to have failed to timely notify police . And nobody disputes that as head of the football program, Paterno had authority over McQueary, then a graduate assistant. Nor does anyone dispute that McQueary was hired as an assistant coach to the Nittany Lions, nor that Paterno, as head coach, approved of McQueary being hired, nor that hiring McQueary implied tolerance, if not affirmation, of his past conduct.

    But aside from telling McQueary to go to the police, what else should Paterno have done (assuming he did not come across any subsequent information)?

    • “What you seem to be forgetting is that not staying quiet absent at least an arrest, let alone an indictment, could have opened up Penn State to a defamation or slander suit by Sandusky.”

      That’s ridiculous. If true,you could use that argument to justify not reporting any crime. Good faith reporting of a crime is never defamation or slander, and can never support a lawsuit on that basis. Sandusky could never allege defamation…the previous complain against him would rule that out, as would McQueary’s story. There has to be knowledge what is being said is false, and reckless disregard of the truth.

      And even if you had a point, and you don’t, letting kids get raped because you are afraid of a law suit is hardly noble. In fact, it is rank cowardice.

      • There has to be knowledge what is being said is false, and reckless disregard of the truth.

        Sandusky is also a public figure, so actual malice may come into play as well. What jury is going to believe that a paragon of both virtue and winning would maliciously attack one of his best employees, risking both his ethical reputation and cultural legacy?

      • And even if you had a point, and you don’t, letting kids get raped because you are afraid of a law suit is hardly noble. In fact, it is rank cowardice.

        No, it is not. Complying with tort law is never cowardice, just as complying with criminal law is never cowardice.

        If true,you could use that argument to justify not reporting any crime. Good faith reporting of a crime is never defamation or slander, and can never support a lawsuit on that basis.

        It is obvious that McQueary reporting the crime in good faith would not have been slander, and from that extension, neither Paterno nor Penn State would have been liable. I never claimed otherwise.

        But what exactly was Paterno supposed to say, aside from telling McQueary to report the crime to the police? He had no independent duty to investigate the crime, and no authority over the campus police or other law enforcement agency. He did not have any training in investigating sex crimes. If he had accused Sandusky in public before any arrest or indictment, he would likely have opened up the university and himself to a slander suit.

        Given the balance between his negative duty to the university to not open it up to civil liability, and the positive duty to exercise supervision over the football program, which of course includes ensuring that subordinates report crimes against persons that they witness, the prudent course of action would be to make sure McQueary went to the police. His apparent * failure to do so would be a failure of leadership. But going too far would have been a failure to exercise prudence and caution.

        * There are conflicting reports as to what McQueary said to the university leaders.

        • Your first statement was so profoundly mistaken on the law that I couldn’t read past it. One isn’t “complying” with tort law when one avoids a necessary act out of fear of a law suit. Tort law involves how and when damages will be assessed for torts, which are determined in a court of law based on facts. Fearing a law suit has nothing to do with obeying the law. Someone can sue you over imagined or wrongly interpreted slights. Home intruders can and have sued homeowners protecting their homes for torts…and some has won. Your silly statement holds that for fear of this, a homeowner who refrains from using force against an intruder is not a coward.
          Sorry–you don’t know what you are taking about.

          The same with criminal law. People who defend their families and children can and have been charged with crimes. Letting harm come to a child because one is afraid of personal consequences is unethical, and is cowardly.

          Frankly, your comments here cause me to wonder if you comprehend the basics of ethics at all.Fear of lawsuits and prosecutions are just non-ethical considerations that can discourage ethical acts if one fears the consequences more than he is willing to embody ethical principles and virtues.

          Your determined efforts to make excuses for Paterno are leading you deeper and deeper into ethical confusion. You should stop. He’s not worth it, and its not good for you.

          • Your determined efforts to make excuses for Paterno are leading you deeper and deeper into ethical confusion. You should stop. He’s not worth it, and its not good for you.

            What excuses am I making? I had already stated, here and on other posts as well as other sites, that if McQueary had failed to inform the police of the crime, then Paterno’s failure to ensure McQueary reported the crime , and his tacit approval of McQueary’s conduct by hiring him as an assistant coach would constitute a failure of leadership. Other than that, I do not know of any other ethical lapses Paterno had in this case. I know of no evidence he lied to the police about the case, subsequently came across new information about the case and kept quiet about it, or that he advised, counseled, or encouraged others to cover up the accusation or lie to the police.

  3. Everything except the “villain” comment by Phil Knight was just peachy, but there he crossed a line.

    Particularly when you consider that sponsorship, as by Mr. Knight’s company Nike, could be seen as an incentive to cover things up.

    Particularly when you consider the record of Mr. Knight’s company, Nike, on child labor issues.

    I don’t think you can fault relatives or close friends for rallying around the idea of Mr. Paterno as a good and decent man, but when you attack people whose sole job is to find out if children have been exploited in this horrific manner, you are crossing a very big line.

    • Agreed on Knight. But there was no reason for Jay to say that his father’s conscience was clear—that was not only a denial of responsibility and culpability, but a denial on his father’s behalf. Wrong.

  4. It appears that all Jay Paterno did by saying this was precisely what none of his father’s mourners would have wanted; to invoke Joe’s biggest failure in life. There was no need to anyone to speak on this issue at such a proceeding, particularly with the debate and investigation yet underway. No doubt his son thought to dispell the cloud in this manner. He was ill advised indeed. Never try to spin or soft soap the truth. If the time to discuss such matters is inappropriate, hold your peace until it is. Then proceed with honesty.

  5. Pingback: Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa's Memorial Service | Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  6. Jack – I agree with everything you wrote in your post and ensuing comments. Other posters who have tried to in any way justify Paterno’s actions/lack of action – GET REAL! If we, as a society, are really willing to make ANY excuse for his behavior, putting the most vulnerable among us (ie children) in danger – regardless of his reason(s) for doing so – then that is, indeed, a most damning indictment of what our what our society has become.

    Animals will kill to protect their offspring from harm. It’s instinctive. Where have our protective instincts gone?

    • “Other posters who have tried to in any way justify Paterno’s actions/lack of action – GET REAL!”

      We are real, and we have gotten (and have been, and remain) quite constantly and reliably real. Denial is a marvelous thing, and an insidious thing. People practice it, including every one of us posting here and Joe Paterno. For better or worse, denial (among other mental exercise) enables obliviousness. It is unjust to deny the existence of obliviousness, unfair to deny the possibility that obliviousness is a cause of particular action (or inaction), and unkind to jump to a conclusion that obliviousness had no bearing on Paterno or on his involvement in the Sandusky case.

      I am convinced that your post further reflects the “wahlberging” of Paterno in this blog that has tainted the critiquing of his actions and inactions in the context of ethics. We readers here suffered through the denial being practiced by those who dropped in to post (so courageously – that is sarcasm) their wahlberging of McQueary. The discussion of Paterno’s ethics has reached a point where people are jumping to conclusions and wahlberging him as well.

      “Animals will kill to protect their offspring from harm. It’s instinctive. Where have our protective instincts gone?”

      I was going to say more in response to that, in the context of abortion. But I’ll just say, the advancement of ethics in our society would be set back even further, if the constructiveness in the legacy of Joe Paterno (despite the Sandusky scandal) was denied and not allowed to live on.

        • I just noticed your notice above. If I had noticed it before I noticed your subsequent thread using my comment, I would have said here, “Uh-oh.”

          You did notice, didn’t you, that I had (and have) absolutely no quarrel with your points about (Knight’s) Unethical Statement #1? His statement was painful enough to read; sure am glad I wasn’t at that memorial to hear it…it seems so like…Gingrich vs. John King at the S. Carolina GOP debate. You have “wahlberging” nailed well; is “Newting” in the works?

    • Other posters who have tried to in any way justify Paterno’s actions/lack of action – GET REAL! If we, as a society, are really willing to make ANY excuse for his behavior, putting the most vulnerable among us (ie children) in danger – regardless of his reason(s) for doing so – then that is, indeed, a most damning indictment of what our what our society has become.

      One point being debated is the nature of what actions Paterno should have taken.

      I am sure we both agree that Paterno had ethical obligations, by virtue of his status as head coach, to ensure that McQueary told the police the truth about the incident and to not take action that would tacitly tolerate or affirm any misconduct by McQueary in this matter. And surely if Paterno came across new information which, at this time, we do not know if he had done so), he would also be obligated to inform the police.

      But some people claim that even Paterno personally escorting McQueary to the police station so that he can tell the truth to the police would not have been enough .

      To top it off, Trustee John Surma admitted that he could not “characterize” what Paterno did wrong.

      • Enough: use all his power, influence and wiles to make certain that children were not at risk. That could include:
        1. Reporting to police.
        2. Doing his own investigation.
        3. Contacting the Foundation.
        4. Grilling McQueary
        5. Confronting Sandusky himself.

        Given the importance of the matter at hand, Paterno would not have discharged his ethical and moral duties until he was either reasonably convinced based on objective inquiry that Sandusky could not endanger children, or that Snadusky was going to be stopped from doings so. As long as he was aware that Sandusky was in the presence of children after hearing McQueary describe something sexual going on in the shower between the grown man and a boy, his obligations TO THE CHILDREN–never mind the school—were not discharged until he knew the children were safe.

        • Jack,

          while I agree with you with respect to 1. and 4., you are plainly wrong with 2. Paterno had absolutely no qualifications in conducting his own investigation, and doing so might even trip up any police investigation underway. (At that time, he did not know if the victim had reported the crime.) Depending on how he would have pursued such an unwise course of action, it could even amount to witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

          It would not necessarily have been wrong to contact the Foundation or confront Sandusky, but there would still be a duty to make sure that doing so does not taint or imperil the investigation.

          Here is another example of the comparison between doing the right thing and going too far. In 2006, Erika Pratt reported to the police that a registered sex offender had children living in his back yard in Antioch, California. We can agree this was right- she knew the man was a sex offender who was not allowed contact with children, and she made a timely report to the police. Once it was apparent that the police did not arrest him, what should she have done? If she had personally confronted the sex offender, it might have led to the rescue of the children and their mother, who had been kidnapped and held captive for the past fifteen years. But it also might have led to the murders of the children and their mother.

          In short, there can not be an ethical duty to engage in such reckless actions.

          • “Investigate” doesn’t mean playing Inspector Clouseau, it means finding out what the heck is going on. That is frequently our obligation. If a parent thinks his kid is dealing drugs, he has a duty to investigate—it’s not the police’s job. Patertno, at very least, could have asked the University if there had ever been any complaints about Sandusky and kids…and there had been. The trail would begin there.

            • If a parent thinks his kid is dealing drugs, he has a duty to investigate—it’s not the police’s job.

              While parents have a generalized responsibility over their children, which gives them somewhat more leeway than a football coach with respect to hearing an allegation, their actual authority to investigate is still limited. At most, they can search the child’s room, call teachers, the child’s friends, and parents of the child’s friends. Beyond that, there is not much they can do.

              • There are many settings where informal investigations are necessary and appropriate—a manager in an organization often has to investigate to find out about problems that may be just under the surface. Simply asking around might well have alerted Paterno. He didn’t want to be alerted.

              • I would side with Eddie in thikning Joe probably he felt he had done what he should. I would hate to see his great career end on this dark note.-I cannot imagine what motivates these perverts to do what they do.

    • We we have a culture of idolatry (for what else is the obsession with sports in this country?) we create a society where the “gods” are not held accountable. It’s not just Penn State.

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