Few stories have shaken me up this year quite like the sexual scandal at Penn State University.
My revulsion at the depravity in this story knows no bounds — according to law enforcement officials, at least nine boys were sexually assaulted at the hands of a former Penn State football coach over a 15-year period, while university leaders allegedly did nothing to stop it.
As David Brooks of The New York Times writes: “What could have made them so numb and callous? How could they have not been seized by revulsion after hearing the reports of what was happening? How could they have not felt a desire to expunge this from their athletic system? It’s the failure to follow normal intuitions that is striking.”
Yes, the failure to follow normal intuitions, as in the case of Penn State graduate student Mike McQueary, who in 2002 witnessed a 10-year-old boy being sexually assaulted in the shower by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Instead of screaming rape and stopping the crime — or at least calling the police — McQueary went home and passed the buck to his father and, the following day, to head coach Joe Paterno, who then waited another day before passing the buck to the athletic director, who then passed the buck to the president — you get the pattern.
For years, everyone passed the buck, hoping somehow it would “all go away.”
The great Jewish commentator of the middle ages, Nachmanides (The Ramban), wrote that you can be a scoundrel and still follow the letter of the law. It’s likely that the most powerful man in this story, Paterno — who ran the program for nearly half a century and was treated like royalty by the university — followed the letter of the law in his lame response to the horrible accusations he heard. But did he follow his own code of “success with honor”?
“Success without honor is an unseasoned dish,” Paterno said during a commencement speech he gave to the Penn State Class of 1973. “It will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.”
It won’t taste good? Is that what this is about — success tasting good? I don’t know about you, but I find this metaphor betrays a certain moral flaw. Is the virtue of honor only there to make a dish “taste” better? Doesn’t honor deserve a dish of its own?
When honor is seen as a maraschino cherry on top of success, when it become about satisfying your tastebuds, it gets diminished and loses out to bigger sources of satisfaction. Had Paterno done more to root out the evil in his program, he might have tasted a little satisfaction. But, in his mind, to do so would have poisoned the much-greater satisfaction he derived from the legendary program he’d spent decades building — and how good would that have tasted?
Once honor was reduced to a narrow calculation of “what tastes better,” passing the buck in the face of evil became the “normal intuition.” If Paterno was really serious about honor, his motto would have been, “Success Without Honor Is Failure.”
As someone who believes in the ultimate PR value of transparency, it’s tempting for me to argue that Penn State would have looked better, in the long run, had it exposed the scandal right away.
But that’s patronizing. It’s like saying “honesty is the best policy” or “good ethics is good business.” It might well be true, but it misses the point. Virtue shouldn’t need a sales pitch.
In the Jewish tradition that I’ve been taught, honesty is honesty and good ethics are good ethics. They are not means to an end; they are the end.
I learned an even tougher variation of that idea in business. “A principle is not a principle unless it costs you money,” wrote Bill Bernbach, the co-founder of an ad agency where I used to work.
Sure, it might have cost Penn State plenty of fundraising money to expose the moral rot inside its vaunted football program, but, regardless of any positive or negative PR implications, it would have been the right thing to do.
Just ask Penn State alumnus Jon Matko, who, according to local reporter Wayne Drehs, showed up at the school’s football game last Saturday with a thick piece of black duct tape covering the Penn State logo on his baseball cap and a pair of signs criticizing the university.
As Drehs writes, “So while kids posed for pictures next to the Joe Paterno statue and others did the ‘We Are’ chant before Saturday’s game, Matko stood on a street just outside the stadium quietly holding his signs and accepting the abuse that came with it.”
One of his signs quoted Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
Another sign included the message “Put the kids first.”
Yes, of course, do the right thing by putting the kids first. It sounds so right, so natural, so normal. But there’s a problem: Putting the kids first means putting yourself second. And, apparently, no one at Penn State was willing to stoop that low.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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