What would you have done, if you were Coach Joe Paterno? How would you have handled the news, brought to you by a graduate assistant, that a longtime colleague was seen raping a little boy in YOUR locker room?
While I like to think that I know how I would respond, it may not be that simple. And without excusing what I believe was a profound failure of leadership, both moral and institutional on Paterno’s part, most of the responses coming from the university and its community seem incomplete at best and deeply misguided at worst.
The university board has taken the approach of “cutting off the head of the snake”, firing Coach Paterno, presumably in the hopes that as with a snake, once the head is gone, the threat is gone. But is it that simple? Will that really make kids safer?? And if the argument is that it’s about the need to “make a statement” about the coach’s failure to act, why fire Paterno alone?
Why fire Paterno without also firing the graduate assistant, now coaching the team, who behaved exactly as his boss did – both passing the horrible news up the chain of university command, neither contacting the police or other authorities?
Because by firing Paterno and not even addressing the graduate assistant, those who heard the rumors that almost certainly were circulating as they always do around a locker room where very little can be kept secret, etc. the story can be put aside – an approach as old as sending the biblical Scapegoat off into the desert to carry away the community’s sins. But moral responsibility is more complicated than that. An honest accounting of the events surrounding Jerry Sandusky’s alleged serial abuse of children would require that we hold all people to an equal standard, and that can be uncomfortable.
By firing Paterno, nobody else needs to ask what they could have done to keep Sandusky’s alleged victims from ever having been victimized, and by extension none of us has to ask what we could do in any of the situations when we have the opportunity to step in and help someone else in need.
Meanwhile, students enraged by what they see as unfair treatment of their beloved coach, have rioted in the streets of what is usually referred to as the “happy valley”. While the students are correct that Paterno has not committed any legal wrongs, they fail to accept that legal culpability and moral responsibility are two different things.
Like the actions of the university’s board, this response insulates them from the far tougher question which moral people must ask – not what does the law demand of us, but what do we demand of ourselves in order to be the people we want to be.
Which brings us back to the question of what would we do, if we were in Paterno’s shoes. How readily would be able to accept even the possibility that for so long we had worked alongside a sexual predator, a kind of monster? How, we might say, could we have missed that?
How likely would we be to rely on those higher up within our own institution because in doing so we reassured ourselves that we were in a fundamentally good system. Isn’t that argument that was made by many members of the Catholic Church who failed to go to outside authorities when dealing with abuse in the Church?
How willingly would we risk the displeasure of peers which often occurs when an individual takes on the abuses of a “higher up”. That is what holds many kids back from addressing a bully who poses no direct threat to them, but if they take them on, could end up losing social standing among their own peers.
Are we really so different from any of these people? Are we better than Coach Paterno with his life-long record of great work and good behavior? Are we better than believers in a religious institution which assured us that the evils committed were being fully and properly addressed? Are we so much better than we were as kids, still feeling a desperate need to maintain our place in among our peers?
Ironically, it is by admitting that we are not, by remaining vigilant about how easy it is to find moral fault with others, or simply relying on the letter of the law instead of seeking opportunities to take moral responsibility ourselves, that we avoid the failing of looking the other way, or not even seeing the problem to begin with.
Whether we call it listening for the “still, small voice” of Judeo-Christian tradition, taking a breath and reflecting, as called for in Eastern meditative traditions, or “trusting your gut” as contemporary pop psychology teaches, it’s all very much the same thing. It’s about stopping longing enough to reflect not only on what is going on, or what we are legally required to do, but upon who we want to be as the story unfolds, and how we hope others would be for us if we were the ones in need.
There is no certain way to know what any of us would have done in Joe Paterno’s shoes. We can however, ask ourselves what we can do to see the needs of those who are more vulnerable than we are, and appreciate that we will never be more proud than when we have stood up on their behalf.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.