To review: as everyone has observed, a list of individuals (not yet complete, certainly) acted and passived criminally and/or despicably. And it is equally true that not all of Paterno’s or even Spanier’s career behavior has been despicable or even mediocre; indeed, adding to the dimensions of the tragedy, they did a lot of good even discounting anything involving a football. As lots of commentators have observed, much of the rot here is traceable to PSU’s having completely lost its grip on the appropriate relationships between playing the game and winning every game; between a game and a university; and between a university (especially a big university that’s the main industry in a small college town) and civil society, not to mention the relationship between sports and sportsmanship/leadership/teamwork.
Some of the debate has the implicit undertone that what the enablers and concealers did was bad because in the end it caused much more damage to the program than lancing the boil at the time would have. This is deeply pernicious, of course, because it just indicates extra coats of whiting on the sepulchre for next time. This episode would, if possible, have been even worse if the damage had been permanently limited to secret injury to Sandusky’s victims. Certainly a lot of victims were sacrificed during a decade of dissembling virtue.
The legalistic defenses of these people that they did what the law requires, and the inability of anyone to borrow a whistle from the refs and blow it, raise a more general, less discussed, and I believe more devastating criticism of Paterno and his spaniel, and also of the trustees: they managed an enterprise for decades in which everyone who mattered believed that their duties were to the reputation (and game record) of the institution – that looking good was more important than doing bad. This malfeasance is not traceable to specific acts; indeed it is misfeasance, a million acts of omission, when they failed to signal, and find a way to demonstrate, and confirm receipt of the signal, that the university expects its people to do the right thing even when it causes bad press, and even when it hurts their friends, and even at some cost to themselves.
What has poisoned Penn State is not that most people are not heroes, and are intimidated by their environment’s symbols and comfort-seeking routines: you go to life with the people you have, not the ideal people you wish you had. It is that its leadership serially flubbed a flat, incontrovertible duty of leadership to know (i) that s..t happens, and (ii) that ordinary people are afraid to deal with it without help. It is therefore a flat duty, also flubbed, to affirmatively and aggressively give those people tangible, costly, public, action-centered reassurance that the institution’s determination to protect and admire them when they step up is bigger than the football team’s record (yes, and the biochemistry department’s desire for a breakthrough that a batch of experimental results don’t support).
The whole gang of administrators, boosters, coaches, and trustees didn’t take care of their own people (never mind the kids) in the worst way, by undermining their courage and their sense of right and wrong. When you don’t take care of your people for two years, you should lose your job: I think twenty is far past the Mendoza line, and the give-em-a-break line.
The whole gang.