Thursday, January 19, 2012

Members of Penn State's Board Attempt to Justify Abrupt Paterno Firing

There has been mounting criticism of the manner and swiftness with which the Penn State Board of Trustees fired Coach Joe Paterno, so 13 of the 32 members of that Board spoke with The New York Times to try to justify their actions. It has almost been an afterthought that prior to firing Paterno the Board also fired Penn State President Graham Spanier but it should be abundantly clear why that decision was not in any way controversial: Spanier kept the Board largely uninformed about the grand jury investigation of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for multiple charges of child abuse and then when the story became public Spanier immediately issued a statement defending Athletic Director Tim Curley and one of the school's former Vice Presidents, Gary Schultz; the grand jury charged Curley and Schultz with failing to report Sandusky's alleged crimes to the authorities and with committing perjury when testifying to the grand jury.

Whether or not Spanier, Curley and Schultz are criminally guilty, it is obvious that Penn State should want to sever ties with those men. However, the grand jury found Joe Paterno's testimony to be credible and the grand jury concluded that Paterno fulfilled his responsibilities by informing Curley and Schultz--who was then in charge of, among other things, Penn State's campus police--about what Mike McQueary had told him regarding Sandusky's suspicious conduct with a young boy in the Penn State locker room shower area. McQueary did not explicitly tell Paterno that Sandusky had committed sexual assault and thus Paterno understandably turned the matter over to his superiors with the expectation that they would take whatever action was appropriate and necessary. The fact that Curley and Schultz failed to do so is why the grand jury indicted both men.

Paterno has a sterling record not just as a field general but also as a contributor--both in the literal sense of financial contributions and also in the sense of the standards he set for his players--to the Penn State community. Scientists often say that extraordinary theoretical claims require extraordinary proof; that kind of standard should have been applied when the Board of Trustees met to decide Paterno's fate: firing Paterno would place a large taint on his good name and such a decision should not be taken lightly or made hastily. The 2011 football season was almost over and it was pretty obvious that Paterno's physical condition would not permit him to coach the team much longer. Rather than publicly disgracing a man who had served so well for so long, the Board could have and should have permitted Paterno to finish out the season before retiring. Instead, the Board took the quick and easy path, dismissing Paterno with a dismissive phone call; the Board members were too cowardly to even deliver the news face to face.

It is easy for people to say that if they had been in Paterno's shoes they would have handled the situation better. For instance, several ESPN employees made that assertion on the air but their commentaries ring hollow in light of the fact that ESPN and other media outlets suppressed for nearly a decade an audio tape Bernie Fine accuser Bobby Davis made of Fine's wife admitting knowledge of Fine's homosexual/pedophilic proclivities and activities. Unlike ESPN, Paterno did not cover up anything; McQueary made a vague report of alleged improprieties to Paterno and Paterno immediately informed his superiors about what McQueary had said. Sandusky was not a member of Paterno's coaching staff at that time and there really is nothing more that Paterno could have or should have done. On what basis could Paterno have gone to the police based on what he knew? It was up to Curley and Schultz to investigate the situation and decide upon an appropriate course of action. Perhaps Paterno should have followed up with Curley and Schultz to find out what they did but I suspect that Paterno had a great degree of misplaced trust that those men would handle things the right way.

The Penn State Board of Trustees was asleep at the switch for a long time and when the Sandusky charges woke them up they decided to make Paterno a high profile scapegoat for their own inadequacies and for the allegedly criminal conduct of two men (Curley and Schultz) employed by their university.


Further Reading:

Cowardly Lions: Penn State Acted Slowly on Sandusky Allegations but Swiftly Made Paterno a Scapegoat (November 10, 2011)

Christine Flowers Blasts Penn State for Hastily Firing Joe Paterno (November 11, 2011)

Joe Posnanski Criticizes the Media's Coverage of the Sandusky Scandal (November 11, 2011)


Stephen said...

Timely post, unfortunately.
But Paterno's recent passing has shown me one thing rather clearly (if it wasn't already abundantly so): the average person knows almost nothing about the case.

Can't tell you how many "Paterno knew what was going on and did NOTHING" type of posts in the past few hours.

David Friedman said...


The callous way that the Penn State Board treated Joe Paterno is disgusting. After Paterno died, Urban Meyer told an interesting story: Paterno always said that he still had a rotary phone because the act of dialing a number gives you more time to think about what you are going to say. Meyer said that he often thinks about Paterno's rotary phone and that this reminds him to not speak or act hastily.

I think that Penn State's Board of Trustees would have benefited greatly from hearing (and acting upon) the wisdom in that story.