Penn State: Lessons Learned

Penn State: Lessons Learned


The Penn State Scandal is tragic, shocking and upsetting. A few weeks have passed since the revelation that Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach for the football team, had been sexually abusing young boys for decades. The grand jury report suggests that many individuals had direct or indirect knowledge of this abuse and didn’t do enough to stop it. Consequently, the head football coach, the athletic director and the president of the university were fired. While all the facts of the case are not known, there seems to be several lessons that we should take from this tragic story.

Lesson # 1 – Bad People Do Bad Things: There are people in this world who are committing heinous crimes.  It happens everyday and it will happen tomorrow.  There are people like Jerry Sandusky all over this world who carry out evil acts with forethought and intent. Despite all of our collective wishes to the contrary, bad people will continue to do bad things.
Lesson # 2 –It Takes Personal Responsibility to Stop Evil: There is a quote by an English philosopher that fits this situation well, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Based on the grand jury testimony, there were two eye-witness accounts to the graphic sexual abuse in the showers on the campus of Penn State: 1) a custodian (Jim Calhoun) in 2000 and 2) a graduate assistant (Mike McQueary)  in 2002. The custodian told his supervisor and his supervisor in return told him that if he chose to report it, he would support him. The custodian did not report the incident. The graduate assistant chose to call his dad for advice. The next morning he reported the incident to head football coach, Joe Paterno.  The next day, Joe Paterno told the athletic director. The next day, the athletic director told his boss.  Eventually, it made it up to the president of the university.  Unfortunately, no one told the police.  No one even found out who the victim was or initiated an investigation. In total, at least 16 people knew something wrong was going on and didn’t go to the police. The lesson here is that we have a moral responsibility in addition our legal responsibility. We cannot pass the buck or mistakenly think that someone else will handle it. The janitor was too worried about his job and the graduate assistant froze under pressure. Others might have minimized, rationalized or thought it didn’t fit into their job description. The irony is that if anyone of these people had simply called the police or made a public statement to the media, they would now be called heroes. Instead by bystanding, they allowed evil to flourish and go unchallenged. Why good men did nothing is the true fascination with this case and the reason the media covered this story non-stop.
Lesson #3 – Prepare Yourself to Handle Difficult Situations – Everyone who talks about this case says that he/she would have called the police, confronted the perpetrator and protected the child (me included). The research suggests otherwise.  People freeze, people get scared, people rationalize. The brain takes longer to process information in a crisis and we struggle to make good decisions. Here are two metaphors to explain this point. First, 56% of passengers involved in a serious plane crash, survive. The survival favors people who were smart enough to develop an escape plan before the plane took off (read the safety briefing cards, located exits and listened to the flight attendant’s safety briefings). These people use their plan to override fear and denial, thereby responding quicker and with more wisdom.  Disaster research suggests that less than 10% of us can actually excel in an emergency situation.
The second metaphor is something most of us can relate to and a lot more common. All driving experts say that drivers should never swerve for an animal that darts out in front of a moving vehicle. Rather, drivers are told to hit the animal. This includes cute little squirrels and innocent “Bambi’s.” The reason is simple – swerving to avoid an animal often injures and/or kills people. One day, I asked my wife is she could resist the natural instinct to swerve in such an instance. She said that she didn’t know if she could. I reminded her of our four children and innocent people in oncoming traffic. She said, “Wait a minute…I just made my decision.” It’s important for all of us to make our decisions and develop plans before they occur. While it’s impossible to prepare for every situation, it is more than possible to say, “I will confront people acting unethically or who are breaking the law or at the very least report it to the police.”
Lesson #4 – One Bad Decision Can Override 100 Good Ones: This is a very tough lesson. I remember a local news anchor who was a pillar of the community and was very well-respected. One night after a charity function, he got into his car after drinking and killed someone by running a red light. He was fired from his job and he is still in prison today. How tragic for all involved. All the good deeds he had performed & all of the good decisions he made before that moment could not override that one bad decision. The consequence was final and irreversible. In this case, Joe Paterno had lived an exemplary life filled with virtue and integrity. He was respected by everyone in his profession. He spent 61 years at Penn State University trying to do the right thing and to be a positive role model. He donated enough of his personal money to build a new library on campus. With all of that said, he was fired less than a week after the grand jury report came out documenting that he did not call the police. He made a poor decision. We still don’t know why, but even he acknowledged, “I wish I had done more.” This is a tough lesson to learn and not altogether a fair one. No one is perfect and we shouldn’t be expected to be. Unfortunately, every decision, whether it be small or large, has real consequences.
Lesson #5 – Reputation and Legacy Matter: If you don’t believe me, ask President Clinton, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds or Joe Paterno. Society mistakenly places such a high emphasis on material possessions, but in the end, it doesn’t matter how much money you make or what kind of car you drive. We will ultimately be judged and remembered based on how we treat other people, take responsibility for ourselves, live with integrity and contribute to society.  That is how we build a reputation and create a legacy to leave behind when we leave this earth. It is important not to lose sight of this important lesson.

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