Most of the world probably only sees the unfolding story in State College, PA as a minor blip on the radar or just another incomprehensible fanatical football fueled frenzy. I grew up there, I followed Penn State football and later worked in radio with the football network so I'm hoping you'll excuse my deep feelings for what is going on. I don't claim to have all the answers, or even a few of them but I think that's okay because I do believe that asking questions and thinking about them is often more useful than coming up with a specific answer to fit each question. I've followed the outrage following Coach Paterno's firing by the university board of trustees on Wednesday night. Many friends who still live back in the old hometown have expressed great anger at not only the trustees but also the press that descended on Happy Valley for round the clock coverage. One friend joked that now ESPN stands for "Every Second Paterno News".
Why did the board fire the legendary coach? People are asking in a shocked tone "How could this be?" I can't say I'm surprised. A board of trustees is charged with maintaining the status, reputation and in particular how those factors translate into money for a university. Like a corporation, the bottom line is the key factor, anything that might endanger that will be gone quicker than you can say "Joe Pa"
The board kept Paterno as a coach even as many called for his retirement (and they were calling for that twenty years ago) because his image put people into the seats at the stadium and sold t-shirts, hats and any number of other branded items. When the idea of someone who was accused of not doing enough to stop child abuse being seen on the sidelines of the school's football team continuing to receive the accolades of his amazing career started to look like something that would damage the image of the university the cold hearted business mind took over.
I don't think we should be surprised. Corporations or boards are amoral by definition, they exist to safeguard the bottom line whatever examples of moral behavior there are occur because of the decisions of people. Of course a board of trustees or a large corporation is made up of people but those people have to choose to make decisions, especially if that decision might impact the business model. What would that have looked like in this situation? The board could have chosen to let Paterno finish out his final season as coach. Would that have been the right decision? That's one of those questions that might be worth thinking about, not to answer per se, but to see where it takes you.
As I wrote in my last posting, often there are two sides to the coin, and one is directly connected to the other. Consider this idea, the same business first process has kept Joe Paterno the head coach of Penn State's football team for years even as university administration sought to have him "retired". That same system fired him by phone late at night when he no longer served the bottom line. I'm sure a lot of my friends who are savaging the press now, loved the fact that Joe Paterno became such a recognizable figure over the past twenty or thirty years. Could it be that when we make that kind of deal (with the devil perhaps?) and accept the fame, we must also accept the chance that the fall will be that much greater due to the heights that you've grown accustomed to.
This story is full of questions about what was the right thing to do? Coach Paterno says he wishes he had done more, so he's obviously thinking about that. What should the board have done? If they felt they needed to make a clear statement that they were serious about change, there's nothing that could telegraph that intention any clearer than taking down the symbol of Penn State, which I'm fairly sure most people would say was Joe Paterno. What should they do next? Do they need to remove everyone who was involved with this? At the moment, several of the principal players in this story are still employed by the university. Can the university have a re-birth and re-invent itself? How clean does the slate need to be for this to happen?