Paterno case raises a broader issue of praise and blame

The Rehabilitation of Paterno, Back at No. 1” read the New York Times  front page headline when the news hit of the settlement of the lawsuit brought against the NCAA for its sanctions of the Penn State football program because it turned its back while an assistant coach was sexually abusing children. This rehabilitation or vindication of Paterno in the eyes of those who never thought he did anything wrong brings up a broader issue of the praise and rewards we heap on some people.

In Praise and Blame, moral philosopher Daniel Robinson asserts that people get too much praise—and by implication too many rewards—for their accomplishments, which are too often the result of factors beyond the control of the individual. Some of those factors include the innate ability one has at birth and does nothing to get, wealth and social position of family, match of skills to what’s in demand, chance meetings with mentors and patrons and timing.

Applying the principles of Praise and Blame, it’s clear that Paterno always received too much credit for those victories, which resulted from a group effort of his football players, coaches, recruiters, alumni and university staff.

His first luck was to be born with high ability in the types of intelligence that leads to success in football—organization, strategy, communications skills, ability to predict change in complex patterns of motion. Like the basketball player Spencer Haywood, who was born with an extra set of knuckles on his enormous hands, or the physics whiz whose math IQ is so high that it’s virtually immeasurable, Paterno did nothing except be born to have his natural genius.

Paterno was also lucky that a rich guy agreed to pay his tuition to an Ivy League college, a place where he could get connected to a powerful network of contacts.

He was lucky to have a mentor who hired him to be an assistant coach at Penn State, lucky to have an alumni support system that helped to identify players and raise funds for state-of-the-art facilities, lucky that Penn State football is the big sports team for miles around, which it wouldn’t be if the university were located in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or New York.

That Paterno stayed in the same place that offered him his first real job may have stemmed from a personality trait, not the fact that he kept getting promoted. Lots of successful people flit around. Think of Larry Brown or Urban Meyer. If Paterno’s nature was to stay in one place, how lucky he was that place was Penn State. If his mentor took a job at Bowdoin or Grinnell, would Paterno have remained loyal to his first university job and had a long, but mediocre career?

Paterno was the commanding general and not the field general in the 111 victories returned to Penn State by the NCAA. The field generals were a succession of quarterbacks. Paterno not only taught, selected and advised the players, but he managed the other coaches, the medical staff, the weight trainers, the tutors, the recruiters, the statisticians, the caterers and the liaisons to the alumni and public. All these people—an ever changing cast of characters over decades—contributed to his success. Without them, he would have been nothing.

Let’s still admit that Joe Paterno was a genius football coach of mostly legitimate students. Probably most other people given the same set of breaks would not have done as well as JoePa.

But the luck part of it mitigates the position that every one of us holds in life, be it high, low or somewhere in the middle: what you accomplish should not really be used to judge the essence of any of us because so much of it results from circumstances beyond our control. Joe Paterno is a perfect example of the preponderance of factors beyond our own efforts that determine our lot in life.

What we’re left with then is not money, championships, fame or respect by which to judge a person, but those things which he or she can control. And in 1999, Joe Paterno had absolute control over how he was going to act after hearing from an assistant that Jerry Sandusky molested a young boy in the shower.  He was in control when he passed on a cursory report to the administration, and he was in control when he didn’t follow up to see what the administration was doing. He was in control when he didn’t make it an important issue, didn’t insist on getting the results of a real investigation. He was in control when he didn’t ponder the implication of the accusation against Sandusky, what it meant to the children in the programs the monster controlled. He was in control when he swept it under the rug like yesterday’s dust bunnies.

Thus while we can readily hold back the praise of Paterno’s successes, shaped as they were by luck, there is no way we can mitigate the blame he holds for the repeated rapes of young boys for more than 10 years because he failed to speak up aggressively to follow-through on a horrifying accusation.

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