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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Enabling Non-Empathetic Leaders: Paterno at Penn State

In January 2011, the illustrious football coach at Penn State University, Joe Paterno, learned that prosecutors were investigating his longstanding assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, for sexually assaulting young boys in the football team’s locker room. Paterno even testified before a grand jury on the matter that month. He had been informed of the rapes back in 1998, yet he had kept the pedophile on even though additional boys would be at risk in doing so. 

That same month—January 2011—Paterno also began negotiating to amend his contract that would not expire until the end of 2012. By August 2011, Paterno and the president of Penn State reached an agreement in spite of the fact that both were by then embroiled in the Sandusky investigation. “Paterno was to be paid $3 million at the end of the 2011 season if he agreed it would be his last. Interest-free loans totaling $350,000 that the university had made to Mr. Paterno over the years would be forgiven as part of the retirement package. He would also have the use of the university’s private plane and a luxury box at Beaver Stadium for him and his family to use over the next 25 years.” 

The university’s board was kept in the dark. Directors who raised questions were “quickly shut down.” In the end, the board gave the family virtually everything it wanted. The board even threw in free use of specialized hydrotherapy message equipment at the university for Paterno’s wife. In other words, Paterno (and his surviving family, following his death in January 2012) got an even better deal as the scandal came to include Paterno himself.

 Joe Paterno, head football coach at Penn State, viewed by a student as "Pa" in PA        Matt Rourke/AP

The issue, according to the New York Times, is “the significant power” that Paterno “exerted on the state institution, its officials, its alumni and its purse strings.” A subsequent investigation funded by the university’s board of directors found that Paterno and other university officials had protected, in effect, a serial predator in order to “avoid the consequences of bad publicity” for the university, its football program, and even Paterno’s own reputation. Similarly, before Joe Ratzinger became the pope of the Roman Catholic Church, the archbishop of Munich had refused to defrock a pedophile priest because of the damage that scandal would wreck on the “universal church.” The priest was sent to a parish where he served as the youth minister. In both cases, the reputation of an organization—a collective—was given priority over the physical and emotional damage to individual human beings. The priority displayed here is troubling.

The question is perhaps how it is that such people get to the top as have no empathy for others yet fierce concern for themselves and their respective organizations. Merely that such people are retained is itself a red flag concerning organizational selection and retention of people for top positions. Skill as a coach (or as a church administrator) is apparently all that matters, even if the applicant or occupant is psychologically willing to look the other way concerning additional boys getting raped. The issue is that such a psychological profile is nonetheless handed significant power in an organization and can extract significant benefits for himself and his own even in the midst of being investigated or implicated indirectly given his position having presided over the abuse.

Moreover, we could be less enamored by leadership generally; it should be easier to deprive a sitting leader of power even if he or she has not lost favor in the organizational hierarchy.  In other words, boards of directors should not allow particular officials in the organization so much power and celebrity that they are no longer expendable, given how wrong an organization can be with respect to its leaders. Either human nature comes up short, or the artifice of organizational accountability is insufficient.  Too much value is put on organization position (i.e., upper echelon offices) and the associated power.  Too much is  virtue is projected onto organizational leaders. Furthermore, boards are too reductionistic concerning what justifies someone in gaining and retaining a post. Max Weber’s distinction between the person and his office can excuse some pretty bad behavior. Accordingly, the criteria for selecting and promoting organizational leaders could be widened.

In short, we do not object to the rise of unscrupulous people until it is too late.  We assume they are other than they are because of what we associate with high position and celebrity, then we act as if even an unscrupulous person has a lifetime right to his or her position.


Jo Becker, “Paterno Won Sweeter Deal Even as Scandal Played Out,” The New York Times, July 14, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/sports/ncaafootball/joe-paterno-got-richer-contract-amid-jerry-sandusky-inquiry.html?_r=1&hp