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?