The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Joe Paterno’s Shameful Failure Provides a Teachable Moment

According to the Urban Dictionary, a big man on campus (B.M.O.C.) is “a highly respected person, or someone in a position of authority (e.g. ‘You gotta check with the B.M.O.C. before you make that move’.)” In the comic strip Peanuts, one of Snoopy’s personas, Joe Cool, is a B.M.O.C., if only in his own mind. Another college Joe – Paterno, in this case – and B.M.O.C. was summarily fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, Paterno announced his intention to retire as Penn State’s head football coach at the end of the current season.

Both announcements were part of the fallout from the indictment of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on forty counts of sexual abuse against eight underage boys over a fifteen year period. Sandusky founded a charity, called Second Mile, which provides programs for disadvantaged youth. He used the organization to find troubled, vulnerable boys on whom to prey. He is, simply put, a monster.

Two campus Joes - Snoopy (left) as Joe Cool still hangin'
around while Joe Paterno (right) heads into ignominy

The university and local police became suspicious of Sandusky as early as 1998. It seems hard to believe Paterno was unaware of the rumors. Regardless, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach reported to Paterno in 2002 that he personally witnessed Sandusky having anal sex with a boy he assumed to be about ten years old in the showers of the Penn State locker room. The next day, Paterno referred the matter to his boss, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and then . . . did nothing more. Curley also ignored the report.

When the story first broke, Paterno issued a statement in which he insisted, “I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention.” This is absolutely true. Moreover, there is no evidence Paterno was complicit in any sexual abuse against children. He is not a monster. He is, simply put, an abject failure as a coach, a leader, and a B.M.O.C. Sandusky’s sins were driven by some sick compulsion that he obviously could not control and well may not understand; Paterno’s failing go to the very heart of his job responsibilities and the persona he portrayed.

In his retirement statement, Paterno conceded, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” He also claimed his decision was solely with the school’s best interests at heart. “The Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status . . . I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.” A cynic might conclude Paterno was simply attempting to save himself from further scrutiny, firing, or worse. However, even taking him at his word, it was woefully too little and far too late.

Attempting to pass himself off as middle management rendered powerless by university bureaucracy is particularly galling. The person committing the crime (Sandusky) was a former player under Paterno; so was the person (McQueary) reporting the incident to him; so was the person (Curley) to whom Paterno passed the buck. The B.M.O.C. in this situation was clearly Paterno. Curley had previously tried to force Paterno to retire – twice – back in 2004 but lacked the clout to do so.

Paterno recently became the most winning NCAA Division 1 coach of all time. I do not agree with FOX Sports columnist Jason Whitlock that “There should be an asterisk next to JoePa’s 409 victories.” Paterno’s successes on the football field are incontestable. However, much of Paterno’s reputation derived from his reputation as a straight shooter, a decent guy, a proud molder of the “young men who have been entrusted to my care,” to use his own words. The motto of his football program was “Success with Honor.” This incident has permanently stained that reputation deeper than any asterisk and just as incontestably.

Yet even in his nadir, Paterno provides a teachable moment for those whose success or failure means far more than a winning or losing football season.

Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy both were fired this week, although they would probably prefer to insist they chose retirement. Both are B.M.O.C.’s for their respective countries and governments. Both were once popular figures, beloved in spite of their foibles and sometimes because of them.

Both now face scorn at home and by the international community because their nations teeter on the brink of economic collapse. Neither was solely or even primarily responsible for the problem but both saw it coming and did nothing substantial to stop it. As a result, they lost trust with their Parties, their people, and the rest of the world. Once they lost that trust, they were finished.

Then there is President Obama, the big man on our own national campus. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds an impressive seventy-six percent of those surveyed feel the current economic structure of the country unfairly favors a small proportion of the rich over everyone else. Fifty-three percent believe in significantly cutting the national debut by reducing spending and the size of government. Forty percent agree with both of these principles. What is more, half of all respondents poll identify (strongly) with Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party.

These numbers cause MSNBC’s First Read to conclude, “Heading into 2012, America is looking for a populist . . . There's an angry electorate out there, ideologically spread across the political spectrum.” Obama began his term as a champion for the working and middle class with large legislative packages, such as his economic stimulus and healthcare reform. However, these both were watered down as a kind of peace offering to conservatives who opposed them. This was to no avail for a GOP uninterested in compromise.

In early 2010, I predicted Obama would turn toward a more populist approach with financial reform. Instead, he seemed to become even more passive and willing to allow opponents to co-opt issues and direct the political conversation. He has been adopting a fighting tone of late but many are skeptical this is nothing more than empty re-election campaign rhetoric.

Papandreou nearly scuttled the Greek bailout deal with the European Union by a cynical populist attempt to subject it to a public referendum. Likewise, Berlusconi has thrown Italy into even greater instability by a cynical populist insistence on elections instead of an interim government. In both cases, these leaders seem transparent in attempting to buy time and save their political hides rather than making tough/unpopular choices in their countries’ best interests.

The United States has a way to go with its own economic problems before it reaches the same degree of crisis faced by Greece and Italy. However, the unappealing vibe I get too often from Obama is that he is so obsessed with keeping his legacy untarnished as to prohibit him from doing the dirty work required to build an actual resume. He may win a second term and prove himself more Clinton than Carter. However, even Clinton’s Presidency – for all its admitted right-center accomplishments – is as easily viewed a disappointment for the progressive reforms it never realized.

“No guts, no glory,” is what Paterno might tell Obama if the President played for him. Obama certainly entered his Presidency with a reputation for being Joe Cool. However, as Paterno illustrates, he could leave it with a far less desirable reputation. And once a B.M.O.C. losses trust, his aura of coolness . . . he is finished.

The Penn State Board of Trustees has sent Paterno to the showers. Whatever treatment he receives there is likely to be better than that received by the ten year old boy whose welfare he ignored. As for Obama, he has a year in which to prove to voters that he is more than the average Joe.


Anonymous said...

your writing is really great..signed up to your RSS, curious to read more!

Anonymous said...

I reread this after the Saints fiasco.Their BMOC('s) literally shared the same fate as Joe.
Football is a bit overrated in my book.