Paterno's fall from grace provides valuable lesson

July 24, 2012
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We could argue all day and into next week about whether the NCAA overstepped its bounds in punishing Penn State or whether the university should have ripped down the statue of its former coach, Joe Paterno.

We could talk right through the entire next season about college sports becoming too big and running amok. We could bemoan the innocent Penn State players and coaches who had nothing to do with, or may not have known, Jerry Sandusky who are being punished by the NCAA’s harsh sanctions. We could even decry the severe economic impact all this will have on the school, the Big Ten and an entire region in central Pennsylvania.

We could discuss and debate all that, but I won’t.

Instead, I want to ponder a question put forth by University of Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel.

“What did we learn from all this?” Pinkel said after the NCAA handed down its ruling yesterday.

Upon hearing the question, I recalled something a local public relations expert told me when I asked what she advised clients when something not-so-great within their business or organization has been uncovered.

The answer was swift and simple. It’s something most of us have heard from our parents since the time we could talk. It’s something that is repeated in a court of law with regularity.

“Tell the truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth.”

But there was a caveat that came from this public relations expert.

“And tell it fast.”

That last bit of advice wasn’t about fast-talking, it was about revealing what you know as soon as it has been revealed to you.

Telling the truth, as it turns out, not only allows you to begin damage control faster, it also allows you to limit the totality of the damage.

It’s always tempting to call a cover-up play when unseemly happenings are found out in an organization. It has long been seen as a means of damage control. Sweep it under the rug. No one will know.

But the truth has a way of finding its way to the surface.

It isn’t the big, bad NCAA or the court of public opinion or recruits and now former fans who have spurned Penn State that have inflicted the most damage on the school. So much of the damage done to Penn State was done by people who purported to love the university the most.

So what have we learned?

The welfare of children is far more important than a college sports program. That's obvious. But there's more.

Cover ups don’t work. They cause more damage than they prevent.

Tell the truth.

And tell it fast.

Had Paterno and other Penn State officials done that, Paterno’s statue would still be standing. Paterno might be, as well.

  • Towering Truth
    You are correct..Want to know a better story about no matter how painful the truth may be, it doesn't always end badly when it looks like it might? Search for the engineer of the Citicorp building, William LeMessurier and see how he reacted to a very possible building collapse on his building AFTER it was built and occupied.
  • Cause and Effect
    Bravo Anthony. Please let good things grow from this ugly reality. This particular Penn State story has often occupied my thoughts. The lack of positive, intelligent leadership in the highest reaches of a university is frightening and depressing. No amount of cynicism, rationalization, profit or punishment makes it any better. Thank you for for your concise comments.
  • One thing I haven't heard yet... how schools plan on reducing the amount of risk around coaches meeting with recruits in private to avoid these problems in the future. Coaches should avoid private meetings with recruits so as not to leave even a hint of impropriety.
  • True
    I am convinced that had Richard Nixon followed Anthony's advice he would have served out his full term. How many parents will sit down with their children and cover the PennState story as a lesson on reporting any advance by a pedofile and add the importance of telling the truth?
  • Amen
    I hope that every college AD and coach sits down with their athletes and staffer this fall and says, "In light of this ruling, we're taking a zero-tolerance policy on any rules infractions or acts of bad judgment. You will not be protected just because you're in sports." ... And it's time for Penn State to build a new reputation based on superior academics, not football bragging rights.
  • No Due Process for JoePa
    One thing we can learn from this mess is that Due Process is dsead in this country. RThe sachool and the NCAA have steamrolled along, posthumously degrading and defaming the man, without any opportunity for defense on the part of him or his family.
  • Freeh report misleads
    This report is full of non-sequiter, significant omissions and erroneous assumptions (how many have actually READ it?). It should not be considered "the truth."
  • The truth hurts sometimes but...
    it hurts less than a lie in the long run...Anthony...very good article. Well put...Paterno, Curley, Spanier, etc. likely did "love" Penn State more than most, believed they were protecting something that was bigger than them, and probably did have trouble believing some of what they were hearing about Sandusky (no one really understands pedophilia, unless you are one...everyone else is rightfully repulsed by the thought of it). But when a former player who is now on your staff tells you he witnessed a sexual assault on a child and you already are awarethat 3 years before there was an investigation into this man over the same charge, and you don't turn that over to the police...And you allow the alleged perpetrator to continue using the facilities (with children in tow) for years after, you don't really deserve the benefit of the doubt. And as for JerseynGeorge's contention that due process is dead in this country, I would say that you don't get due process in the court of public opinion, which is defintiely where Joe Pa has been tried. Due Process is what you hope you get if you have your day in a real court. Had Joe Pa not passed away, he might have had his day there...he might have had to face some charge. And as for the Freeh report, it is 200 + pages, I have read it, and there is plenty in it that is very damning for Joe Pa and the others who knew about this long before it surfaced last year. And as you are probably aware (see the New York Times article), when Joe Pa knew this was coming down, and his time was about to end, he called in all his markers and squeezed the university for a $3 million retirement payout, and all sorts of other perks for his family like use of the Lasch Building facilities and the university's private plane. You might argue there that he was just looking out for his family, but if he had just had a little more concern about Mr. Sandusky's victims instead of his precious legacy and personal fortune, everyone would have been spared most of this sordid mess, and all the things he was working so hard to protect by covering up would have remained bruised but intact. Mr. Paterno's legacy is now "victims", rather than being the founder of a program that "did things the right way". His family, and people who continue to defend him are just raising up his ghost for a punching bag. The best thing you can do for Joe Pa is quit talking about him...he has some degree of culpability in allowing a predator of children to run rampant in his midst when he could have done something about it. If his defenders let it lay for a while, perhaps some measure of dignity will eventually be restored to his tarnished legacy.
    • Well said, Jim...
      I think Jim's comment may well be the best, most well-written synopsis of this whole sad situation. Very well stated.

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