Penn State scandal shows what leadership isn't
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Near the end of a "A Few Good Men,'' a baffled Marine just convicted of a crime exclaims, "What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.''
"Yeah, we did,'' his co-defendant answers calmly. "We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn't fight for themselves.''
That cinematic coda serves for the events in State College this past week, where the leaders of the university that bears our commonwealth's name and no small part of its honor were summarily ousted.
Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired Wednesday night, not for what he did but for what he did not do. Many of the student faithful promptly rioted in his behalf.
It was a most inglorious end to an unparalleled coaching career, yet there could hardly be a more spectacular way for so many to entirely miss the point.
Yes, as coach Paterno's supporters say, he committed no crime. Mr. Paterno is, however, a leader, one who has generally been acknowledged as the most powerful man on campus for decades. When there are crises, great leaders lead. Mr. Paterno did not lead.
We can sympathize with Mr. Paterno for the position he was in. A graduate assistant and former Penn State quarterback, Mike McQueary, says he told the coach in March 2002 that he'd seen Mr. Paterno's old friend and former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, sexually assaulting a young boy in the showers of the football building the night before.
What happened next or, more precisely, what didn't happen for the next 91/2 years, is the reason Mr. Paterno's stint as head coach abruptly ended in his 46th season.
Mr. Paterno didn't go to the police. He did the least he could do. According to the grand jury report, he waited a day to call his ostensible boss and another of his former players, athletic director Tim Curley. Mr. Paterno relayed that Mr. McQueary had told him he'd seen Mr. Sandusky "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy.''
Already playing out like a game of telephone gone horrifically awry, this sequence of non-events would get worse. About a week and a half later, Mr. McQueary was called to a meeting with Mr. Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, who assured him they would look into the matter.
Mr. McQueary was never questioned by university police. Among the most damning statements in the grand jury report was this:
Mr. Schultz "never attempted to learn the identity of the child in the shower in 2002. No one from the University did so. [Mr.] Schultz did not ask the graduate assistant for specifics. No one ever did.''
Mr. McQueary, now an assistant coach on paid leave who has been the target of death threats, was not well-served by the two men he presumably held in highest respect, his father and Mr. Paterno. His father told him to go to Mr. Paterno, not the police, and Mr. Paterno passed the buck.
Graham Spanier, himself forced out as Penn State's president Wednesday, testified that all he ever heard was that Mr. Sandusky was "horsing around'' with a young boy in the shower and that made a staff member "uncomfortable.''
Blame is shared, but it cannot be sliced so thin that Mr. Paterno is blameless. He was among the leaders who did not lead, who seemed more protective of an institution than of a child. The irony is they protected neither.
Had anyone called the police, Mr. Sandusky could have been arrested in 2002. Instead, according to the grand jury report, Mr. Sandusky continued to use access to Penn State football as bait to lure young boys into unconscionable situations.
That boy in the shower is listed as "Victim 2'' of eight.
We like to tell ourselves that the lessons learned on an athletic field are transferable to life. That isn't necessarily so. Sometimes even a great quarterback, a great coach, doesn't know what to do in a crisis outside the lines.
In the funhouse mirror of college sports, those with ties to the University of Pittsburgh or other schools may find it hard to grasp, but Penn State is every Pennsylvanian's university. It bears our name and is funded by our dollars.
We need strong leadership there more than we ever realized. For all the Penn State students who stood this past week in solidarity with the victims of child abuse, and for all the school-age children who can't fight for themselves, we are Pennsylvania.
First Published November 13, 2011 12:00 am