Penn State cover-up of Sandusky crimes shows that a cover-up always makes matters worse

Let’s go back in time to 1998 or whenever it was that Joe Paterno and some high-ranking Penn State officials first learned that an assistant football coach was sexually abusing young boys. What if, instead of engaging in an illegal cover-up of illegal and disgustingly immoral activity, Joe-Pa and his crew had put Sandusky on leave, told the authorities what they knew and made public their moves. They would have sent two very strong messages to the public:

  1. We don’t tolerate illegal and immoral activity
  2. The system works: we responded immediately and forcefully.

An expeditious handling of a tragic situation would not have hurt Penn State and its beloved football program in the long run. Most people have common sense and understand that bad actors can slip through any system.  All the public asks is that institutions do as much as possible to keep out the bad guys and, when they are uncovered, act swiftly to protect victims and punish offenders.

As Louis Freeh’s report demonstrates, Penn State neither protected victims nor pursued justice. Instead it tried to cover it up. The result: the monster Sandusky was able to perpetrate his sexual crimes on other innocents and the formerly sterling reputations of Penn State and its sainted former football coach are now shattered.

When Joe-Pa and the administrators were considering their options back then, did anyone bother doing a risk-reward analysis? Without trying to put numbers on the possibilities, they should have quickly seen that even if there were only a 1% chance that the cover-up would eventually fail, that small possibility was too much to risk if the public discovered the university’s key officials had not acted against a sexual predator. Instead of avoiding bad publicity, Joe-Pa and his crew made it worse by shifting the center of attention away from Sandusky to the university itself.

Some cover-ups may work from time to time, but the bigger the institution, the longer the cover-up and the more sensational the news, the less likely that the institution will be able to keep a lid on the bad news.

Even when we leave ethics and even legality out of the equation, the best and only option when a large organization finds out about bad news is to bring it to the public itself, put its spin on the news, tell why it happened and explain what the institution is doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Didn’t any of these highly educated and savvy white males ever hear of Watergate?

The similarities and contrasts between the Penn State pederasty scandal and Mitt Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns are illuminating. The contrast must be noted first, so that no one thinks I’m equating Romney’s greed with Penn State’s moral failings or Sandusky’s crimes, Mitt’s returns will probably indicate that he did nothing illegal, although it might support the notion that Romney tells a wee white lie from time to time. The bad news is what everyone already knew about Mitt, his money and how he earned it.

But the similarity is also worth noting. The cover-up in both cases has made the publicity much more negative than it would have been if Penn State had acted sooner and Romney had released tax returns for 5 or 6 years.

It’s also worth noting that once the typically hands-off Penn State Board of Trustees finally learned of Sandusky’s heinous crimes and the cover-up, it acted swiftly and appropriately by firing the whole lot. It was the right thing to do, both from the moral and the PR perspective.

Today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called for the suspension of the Penn State football program for an unspecified period of time. I would like to suggest that 5 years should do it. That should be enough time for the university to gain some perspective and realize that even if football were the be all and end all of a university’s mission—which it is not, that is still no reason to act illegally to protect illegal activity and enable it to continue for years.

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