In 1989, PBS televised a fascinating roundtable program organized by Columbia University’s Dean of the Journalism School, Fred Friendly, called Athletics and Academics: An Un-Holy Alliance? One of the guests at this roundtable was Penn State coach Joe Paterno, clearly riding the crest of the wave of his fame. Friendly, a brilliant journalist, put out to Paterno several hypothetical scenarios, in which Paterno, with absolutely no pressure on him save the glare of the television lights, clearly revealed his moral character.
I have used this television program for over 20 years in my classes and now, I can’t. The cat is out of the bag . . .
Here’s what transpired in the conversation between Friendly and Paterno.
In a mock interview for a coaching position, Paterno states explicitly that he will teach his players to play to win “with honor and within rules.” When pressed about rules of integrity, Paterno states he believes in the Marine Corps culture, “Don’t have a lot of rules, but when one is broken there are significant consequences.” He states, “The best thing that can happen to me (italics mine) is that every so often one of my best players gets in trouble, because in punishing him, I can save 50 others” (he was talking about Matt Millen). When presented a hypothetical moral dilemma where he receives $21 dollars from a dysfunctional pay phone, Paterno states, “I’d keep the money because it would be too much trouble to give it back and because I’ve lost money that way.” Over and over again, Friendly gives Paterno the opportunity to reveal his moral character, and every time Paterno demonstrates that the best he has to offer is the ethical reasoning of a six-year old. “He did it first.” “It’s all part of the game.” We understand that six-year olds are not fully formed as human beings; to accept that type of reasoning from a an adult in charge of the education of young men is frightening.
But even this level of immaturity is not the most revealing part of the television program. What is terrifying is that Paterno claims that, in sports, “you give the responsibility to the authority of others.” And that type of reasoning is what allowed Paterno and the others in the PSU “chain of command” to convince himself that he had done enough when confronted with the unspeakable horror over thirteen years ago.
No rational human being would entrust the welfare of the vulnerable to a six-year old. And that is exactly what occurs in the sport culture every single day, and makes much of my everyday job so disheartening. The victims of this sick culture seem incapable of seeing it for what it is, and thus are incapable of ever being able to say “no.”
This is what I wish would happen this weekend: I wish the players from both Penn State and Nebraska would walk to the center of the field, embrace each other and then, holding hands and acting like grownups, walk off the field and out of the stadium, refusing to participate in the charade any longer.
But, of course, that won’t happen.