Penn State scandal a matter of ethics

By Jordan Murray

Sports Editor

Ethics is a big deal at Viterbo University.  It’s right there in the mission statement: “The Viterbo University community prepares students for faithful service and ethical leadership.”  As anyone who has taken an ethics class at Viterbo knows (or should know), different people have different ideas regarding what is ethical and what is not.  What’s happened at Penn State University over the last couple of weeks drives that point home and created a divide on the Penn State campus and throughout the college football world.

The national media has saturated its airwaves and webpages with news regarding the scandal, but let me provide a quick synopsis for those readers who aren’t familiar with the situation.  In 2002, Penn State football graduate assistant Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State linebacker’s coach and defensive coordinator, performing a sexual act on a young boy in the showers of the Penn State football facility.  McQueary left the building without confronting Sandusky and reported the incident to iconic head football coach Joe Paterno the next day.  Paterno relayed the information to the athletic director and university president.  And the chain stopped.  Nothing further came of the matter.  Authorities were never notified.

Until it all came out last week.  At a time when Penn State is battling for a Big Ten championship, it now has to face possibly the biggest college athletics scandal we’ve ever seen.  It turns out that Sandusky had allegedly been repeating this activity since at least 1994.  A 23-page grand jury report that can only be described as horrifying was released last week, detailing how Sandusky allegedly used his charity for disadvantaged youth, called “Second Mile” to single out kids to molest.

What’s worse is that this isn’t the first time Sandusky’s been in trouble for this. In 1998, a victim’s mother found that Sandusky showered with her son and contacted Penn State.  An investigation followed.  Sandusky admitted that he showered with the child and said he would not do it again.  A report was submitted to the district attorney.  No charges were filed.  The district attorney, Ray Gricar, later disappeared and is now presumed dead.  Somehow no one seems to find this suspicious.

Sandusky retired as assistant football coach in 1999 after 30 years in the program and two national championships.  He retained, however, access the Penn State facilities.  In 2000, a janitor allegedly witnessed Sandusky performing a sexual act on another boy and reported it to his superior.  Nothing happened.

In all, Sandusky is being charged with 40 counts of sexual assault on a minor, with eight known victims specified in the report.  I could fill this article with the details of the other incidents, but the point is that people within the university were aware of what was going on with Sandusky.  People knew.

Obviously the ethical issues in this situation aren’t focused on Sandusky.  He’s wrong from any ethical viewpoint.  The ethical issues surround Paterno, the athletic director, and the university president.  But mostly on Paterno.  All three were fired by the university’s board of trustees, but Paterno’s firing prompted riots on the Penn State campus.

To fully understand Paterno’s importance to the university and the state of Pennsylvania, you need to know that he’s been a part of Penn State football for 61 years.  That he’s been the head coach for the last 46.  That he’s the winningest college football in major college football history.  That until this incident, he could’ve probably run for governor of the state and won without any serious challenge.  That he’s credited with the spearheading the university’s growth into a nationally recognized academic institution, in part by donating four million dollars out of his own pocket back to the school.

Many believe that all of this more than merits Paterno keeping his position at the school, at least through the end of this season. The argument is that Paterno did what is legally required by relaying the information to the athletic director and university president.  He seems to be in no danger of facing legal action, so why should he lose his job?

Paterno’s once said, “Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.”  Notifying his superiors was the first step for Paterno.  But as time passed and nothing happened, it was his and others’ responsibility to take it a step further, to notify authorities and investigate what the full truth was.

Sandusky, once thought of as Paterno’s probable successor, should not have been accessing the Penn State facilities as recently as a few weeks ago.  We might never know what exactly Paterno heard from McQueary—who somehow retained his job through all of this— in 2002, but he had to have known something was wrong.  It was his responsibility to find out what was going on.  It wasn’t solely his, but it was his nonetheless.

ESPN radio host Mike Greenberg made a great analogy last week.  In the film “A Few Good Men,” one soldier says to another “What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.”  The other replies, “Yeah, we did.  We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn’t fight for themselves.”

This is the case with Paterno and the others at Penn State who knew, or were suspicious of, what was going on.  The bare minimum wasn’t enough, not in this case.  Paterno admitted as much.  To canonize or demonize Paterno would be a mistake. He’s a man who’s made a profoundly positive impact on thousands of lives, but to claim that this wasn’t a massive mistake on his part would be wrong.  We all, of course, make mistakes throughout our lives. To allow Paterno to continue to run the program after this, however, would feel off the mark for a program is now trying to regain the success with honor that Paterno once described.

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