Paterno As Scapegoat

In the wake of the massive penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA there was shock and dismay in State College recently. An astonishing number of people still cannot accept the fact that Joe Paterno was part of the cover-up of his assistant coach’s  attacks on young boys. A reporter for ESPN mentioned that a number of people he spoke with regard Paterno as a scapegoat who is being made to take the blame for errors in judgment by those above him.

Apparently they haven’t been paying attention: they haven’t read or heard about the Freeh report in which is was made clear that the man not only knew about Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but was unwilling to report the behavior to his superiors upon first hearing of it because it was a Friday and he didn’t want to disturb authorities on the weekend!  And he continued to stonewall as boys continued to be attacked in his own facility which he ruled over with absolute power.

There is such a thing as denial, and this may simply be such a case: group denial. But there is also such a thing as stupidity and I suspect this is closer to what we have here. I understand it would be hard for those who held Paterno in very high regard to admit that he is guilty as sin — not because they believe he was above suspicion, but because it would mean that they were wrong about the man. We have more trouble assimilating this sort of shock when it’s about ourselves, and those who thought Paterno was a Saint (yes, that’s what has been reported) must have suffered quite a shock to their reality principle as they were very wrong.

For years I sat on a committee at my university that heard student appeals after they had received poor grades and were dismissed for academic reasons. Students had the opportunity to try to convince a committee of fellow-students and faculty that there were extenuating reasons for their failure and some of them were at times given another semester to get their grades up to par. One of my close academic friends on the committee was an economist and we often looked at one another in dismay as we heard about dead grandmothers, broken promises, sick girlfriends (or cats), and a host of other excuses that the students tended to fall back upon with remarkable regularity. One of the most common lines of defense was the argument that the student had a learning disability. Students would usually appear in front of the committee with the head of the “Learning Resources Center” who would attest to the student’s inability to read and write because of this supposed “learning disability.” Some of them had legitimate disabilities and we usually took pity on them. But one day after hearing this excuse for the umpteenth time from a student who was clearly grasping at straws my friend looked at me and said “stupidity is also a learning disability.” He was right on. There are legitimate learning disabilities, but there are also hollow excuses. And once you have heard a few you learn to recognize them. There is such a thing as stupidity.

We believe what we want to believe and we insist those things are true that make us comfortable. This seems to be human nature and we are all a bit guilty of this tendency. Instead of looking at the evidence and working through it with our critical faculties, we jump to the closest comfortable conclusion and cling to it for dear life. It’s hard to let go. But at some point it is just plain stupid to continue to deny the plain truth when it is staring you in the face.

Joe Paterno was involved in the Sandusky scandal up to his bushy eyebrows and thick spectacles. And while we can understand how difficult it is for those who held him in high regard to admit it, we must wonder at their unwillingness to succumb to a truth so glaringly apparent. There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.

11 thoughts on “Paterno As Scapegoat

  1. I find it sad that peoples’ blind faith in this one living (at the time) man seems to be the foundation of their entire belief system. I just don’t understand how such a level of trust is put into someone who you do not know on a personal level (sanctimonious articles, speaking engagements, and campus sightings don’t count). If these people are so upset over this man’s legacy, they should evaluate their own lives and act accordingly.

  2. I think it is cognitive dissonance. People hang their hat on people who mean something and when information to the contrary is presented, they disregard the data. On a related note, if they hung their hat on a politician and the politician said global warming is a hoax, even when presented data to the contrary, they disregard it. I admired Joe Pa immensely as did many, but the report is very telling and the point people lose sight of, he was the biggest man on campus, so he could have made things happen in either direction. He chose poorly, for the young boys sake, and is now paying the price through is legacy. Good post.

    • He was a very big man on campus — probably the biggest. He succumbed to the siren song of unlimited power. How many of us could not?


  3. I like this, and you force us to reflect on our own moments of judging others/looking the other way/ or not looking hard enough: “There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.”

    I think sometimes we assume/hope that everyone is honest and are what they appear to be. There have been several moments when what I thought and what was true were miles apart, and how I didn’t see it still astounds me. With your above words, I ponder: “To which category do I belong?!!!

    Is there room for being naive?
    🙂 Z

  4. Paterno screwed up. Simply put. I wonder if he had any idea what his decision to turn a blind eye would beget after his death. Those poor children.

    • I think he was even more culpable than the other three. He was the one who told them to keep quiet so as not to bring attention to the situation and that he would take care to Sandusky himself. Right! It’s hard to imagine that anyone could see him as a “scapegoat”!!

  5. You must be correct because the media told you so right? Or, is it possible that you do not know (and no person outside of the Penn State administrators know) exactly what Paterno’s role was in all of this. I do not know – you do not know. The range of possibilities include high culpability to low culpability to somewhere in between for Paterno. The Freeh report is already being torn apart – particulary regarding Paterno’s (alleged) culpability. The Freeh report is full of unsupported conclusions. Stay tuned, more may be known after the perjury trials to Schultz, Curley and Spanier. But you may not be paying attention any more at that point not because most will be focused on the next media-hyped scandal and Paterno’s guilt has already been decided by most persons. Why do human beings desire to choose a side on an issue without having enough knowledge or evidence to make that decision? Does saying “I don’t know because I don’t have enough information” make you a weak person or does this make you an intelligent person?

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. I believe we do have enough information to make an informed judgment. At the very least, Joe Paterno was guilty of the sin of omission since he failed for fourteen years to act even though (a) he had knowledge of what was happening and (b) he had the ability — given the immense power he had in Happy Valley. That alone makes him culpable. But the Freeh report suggests (even if parts of it are questionable) that he actually took action to prohibit others from making known the events surrounding Sandusky’s behavior. That means he committed the sin of commission as well. He was a good Catholic and he admitted publicly that he should have done more. Indeed so.
      But the issue I was addressing in my blog had to do with the tendency of people — like you apparently– to deny the obvious. That seems to me to be another problem entirely.

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