A Lion in Winter: Lessons From the Penn State Scandal

Lion in Winter: Penn State Nittany Lions' head coach, Joe Paterno, watches his legendary 45-year career come to an ignominious end, engulfed in a sordid sex scandal where it is alleged he didn't do everything he could do to protect young victims from a long-time assistant who turned out to be a serial sexual predator

Hubris (noun)
1.  Pride or arrogance
2.  (in Greek tragedy) an excess of ambition, pride, etc., ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin

We don’t know all the facts yet about the evolving scandal at Penn State.  What does seem clear, though, is that we’re witnessing a humiliating end to the career of a legendary figure in college sports – a man who, until this very week, has been regarded as the epitome of uprightness and integrity throughout a 45-year run as a leader and icon for his sport.

While on the surface this is a “sports story,” in reality, it isn’t.  It’s a story about an organization, a leader, and an executive team that clearly lost their way when it came to “the most important things.”  The question for today is, how can other organizations – and ourselves – avoid such a fate?

Quick Summary

For those not familiar with the details, a long-time assistant coach at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted on 40 counts of endangering the welfare of a child (and similar crimes).  While he is not officially implicated in the case, Penn State’s football coach, Joe Paterno, had allegations involving Sandusky reported to him on at least two occasions.  Paterno – the winningest coach in Division I college football history — complied with his legal obligations by reporting the claim to his supervisor (the Athletic Director).  It appears, though, that he did absolutely nothing more than was legally required and did not pursue or otherwise inquire about the matter in any way.  Penn State’s Athletic Director and Finance VP have also been indicted and resigned from the university.  It is expected that Paterno will resign with days or weeks at the latest.

Details regarding the grand jury’s report are available here.  (Warning: graphic details, including child rape).

Heartbreak

There is heartbreak in every area and on every level in this story …

… for a legend who most thought would ride off into the sunset on a wave of acclaim and gratitude for 45 years of excellence and honor – but who will now resign in scandal and ignominy

… for a university, an alumni body (and, in a real way, an entire state), that finds its reputation now tarnished and linked inextricably with the words “sex scandal”

… for all those (alumni, fans, boosters, etc.) who once looked up to these figures and this institution with pride and admiration, now left confused, disillusioned, and disgusted

… for the parents and families of the victims, whose trust in placing their young sons in the care of esteemed figures was repeatedly and brutally violated

… and most importantly, for the young men themselves, whose lives will never be the same, regardless of the outcome of the cases; cast aside; left in despair over the innocence lost, and bearing the terrible physical and emotional toll of the rape events and their aftermath. Their suffering is unending.

Corporate Lessons

How could a corporation protect itself from something like this happening?  Sarbanes-Oxley was put in place to avoid future financial and ethical scandals on the order of the Tyco, Worldcom, and Enron affairs of the past 10 years – but I don’t know, though, that legislation could have prevented something like this from happening.  This is really a gross failure of systems and safeguards – a failure of vision, of values, of integrity, of judgment … and ultimately, a failure of men.

It will take many weeks and months and years for all of the “why’s” and the “wherefores” to become fully known.  For now, we can only surmise some of the reasons and conditions that allowed this situation to occur:

… when one person – no matter how esteemed or noble of spirit — becomes bigger and more powerful than the organization itself, there is grave danger of hubris seeping in

… when success becomes so large and so long-sustained that vested interests seek to protect and perpetuate success at all costs, rather than protecting the vision that brought the success in the first place, there is grave danger of blindness pervading the scene

… when no “devil’s advocate” mechanisms exist to challenge big decisions with ethical implications, there is grave danger of “looking the other way” (no matter how shocking what is looked-away-from may be) becoming tacitly acceptable

Instead of watching a celebration of a lifetime of accomplishments and service – with Paterno riding off into the sunset as winningest coach, most influential figure, etc. – we’re watching a humiliation.  Perhaps we need to remind ourselves – whether we feel we have low or no status in the organization, and especially if we have “senior” or “executive” status – that the famous quotation attributed to Edmund Burke rings true anew every day:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

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