Tangled Webs, Tarnished Icons

John Feinstein said it best when he observed that “Joe Paterno isn’t a victim in the Penn State scandal; sadly, he is a part of it.”

While everyone is talking about it, it’s unlikely many people have actually read the entire 23-page indictment. And be thankful you haven’t. Not only will the stories keep you up at night thinking about the 7- and 8 year-old victims who re-live this nightmare every day, but you will be ashamed to say you ever rooted for Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, or for a minute thought he might be innocent. Ashamed as I am to say it, I considered Paterno may have been a scapegoat or a way for Penn State to try and save face in the PR nightmare. However, now I am just as certain as Feinstein that he was very much a part of the problem.

“Sandusky is the person who set all of this in motion, of that there is no doubt. If he is guilty, there is almost no penalty he can pay that fits his crimes. But there is also little doubting that for years he was enabled by a number of people at Penn State — Paterno clearly being the most important of them, even though he may not be legally liable, ” says Feinstein. I believe too, that he is just as much to blame as Sandusky because he knew what was going on and, like many Penn State officials, apparently did nothing. This makes him just as culpable as Sandusky, in a way. What human being can know these things happen, repeatedly hear about them and do nothing?

As an iconic fixture at Penn State and in the college football world, his termination shook the entire school, state and nation. People are infuriated, whether it be over the heinous crimes or his firing. No matter what the reason, one thing is certain — Penn State needs a Hail Mary to come back from this scandal. Even the way they handled the situation, holding a press conference late at night, firing the school president and Paterno and holding a prayer ceremony before the Nebraska-Penn State game, it almost seems that every move has been as poorly calculated as Paterno’s decision to keep what he knew from the police. This was as much a human error as it was a PR blunder. Neither Paterno nor Penn State, in my opinion, will recover easily.

The right step was definitely made in firing Paterno and anyone else involved and I commend the school on this. Would I ever send my own child there? After reading the indictment, likely not. Many officials were aware of the scandal and blood-curdling abuse, but ultimately did nothing. This is a place that is supposed to pride itself on keeping students safe and for years turned their heads in order to save face. Ironic how now they have completely lost it. What can the university do now to get themselves back on track? What crisis plan can even attempt to tame the fire?

According to the Bleacher Report, a grand jury began investigating the alleged crimes that first came to light in 2002. Yes, indications are that the university has known about Sandusky and his alleged crimes for almost 10 years. And hiding it was clearly their crisis management plan. It is only fair to ask why several staff members and school officials, including Paterno, were not fired before last week? It makes me think that the firing only happened because the public found out and officials felt they had to do something so they were not associated with Sandusky.

Were winning games and keeping their good name and Paterno’s intact more important than their duty to do the right thing? The Bleacher Report offers some good advice for the school’s PR students, “If Penn State is teaching the same public relations strategy that they’ve employed over the past 10 days, then every student who is currently studying PR at the university should immediately change their major.”

Though they continue to apologize, Penn State has eons to go before they will be able to move past this scandal. Paterno, on the other hand, will never recover. What he did, or failed to do, was much worse than ruining his coaching legacy by breaking a rule. He let his responsibility to the game, his players and staff come before his responsibility as a human being. His clouded judgment will forever follow him and unfortunately, the university he represented for five decades.

Paterno is a permanent fixture at Penn State and is so strongly associated with the school that I am curious to see how they will disassociate themselves or even attempt to do so. The name Paterno will undoubtedly strike a nerve for most who hear it, whether with Penn State alumni or just angry civilians who hate what he now represents — one of the most horrific scandals in college football and human behavior.

What do you think? Will Joe Paterno or Penn State recover their storied status? What next steps should Penn State take to restore its reputation?

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5 Responses to Tangled Webs, Tarnished Icons

  1. dlkline says:

    Where do I start? Having grown up in Pennsylvania, I personally have experienced the power and influence of Penn State in the local community. Unfortunately, this whole experience reminds me of another stellar institution that was rocked to its core by a sex scandal and that is the Catholic Church. Both the Church and Penn State University put the needs and reputation of the “institution” before the well-being of children. As a cradle Catholic and Pennsylvanian, I believe I can make this statement without prejudice. The damage is so deep and pervasive on a human level that it seems trivial to bring up PR, but I do believe it is important. I agree that both the Penn State School of Journalism and Law should be shuddering at the way their school has handled this situation. I believe the university will ultimately recover in due time, but both Joe Paterno and the innocent victims of Larry Sandusky will never recover.

  2. smwillar says:

    I definitely think that this scandal will give other universities in the country a leg-up in athletic dominance because Penn State is not going to recover any time soon. And it serves them right. No school should pride itself on being a role model for anything if they are harboring these kinds of secrets.

    However, being a university full of bright-minded individuals, the school will most likely dominate in other ways again in the future. I believe that the only way Penn State is going to get back into the good graces of the public is by highlighting the reason why the university exists in the first place — for education. They need to take the everyone’s mind off of its disgraced football empire and revert to its academic achievements. The best PR plan is for the faculty and students to demonstrate that they are working hard in their studies to win back the public’s good graces.

    Even though Joe Paterno will probably write a book in the near future about his “struggles” as a Penn State football coach, he will never fully recover his reputation. The university, on the other hand, has an opportunity to work hard to turn the public’s attention away from football to focus on their academic achievements.

  3. caolson says:

    I completely agree with this blog post. First, I think the whole situation from a PR standpoint has been handled terribly. The fact that they tried to cover up the truth from the public seems like something from which Penn State may never recover. Given the enormity of the situation, the first thing Penn State should have done (10 years ago nonetheless) was to have been forthcoming with the public as soon as the issues came to light. Had this happened, I believe that now they would still be dealing with a terrible situation, but that they would still have some credibility as an institution. I think it was the right thing to fire Paterno, but it will take years, if ever, for Penn State to attempt to rebuild its image. As for Paterno, his image will never recover, in my opinion.

  4. rsutherl says:

    I agree with Sabrina’s point — it’s a university, not a pro sports franchise — so if Penn State wants to recover, it should focus on academics and distance itself from football. Lose some games. Disappear from that arena for a while.

    Debra makes an excellent point as well — protecting the tribe came before protecting human beings. Sounds like warfare, doesn’t it? Do sports teams use similar tactics as the military to cultivate passion, loyalty and brotherhood?

    The crimes and the cover-up read like they were written by some unseen author of a Lifetime movie…a revered institution, a trusted father figure, a children’s charity supplying helpless victims, a witness to evil and an elaborate cover-up…odd that the public seems so shocked when the pieces fit together so elegantly.

    Maybe that’s what is shocking these days — not the unexpected, but the expected that goes undetected — right under our noses.

    Who really cares about Penn State’s image? Shouldn’t the institution that produced this crime pay for it? I’m sorry for the students, faculty and staff who had nothing to do with it, but reputations are only valuable if they are vulnerable to injury. Maybe Penn State needs to suffer for a while. Maybe a culture of perceived infallibility and arrogance needed correcting.

  5. abwolfe says:

    My biggest problem with the Penn State scandal is that the person in the negative spotlight is not the man accused of sexually assaulting small children. The media have latched onto the big name, and in this case, it is Joe Paterno. I, by no means, say Joe Paterno is innocent in all of this. The fact that he didn’t report any of this is despicable, but he still isn’t the one who is alleged to have actually committed the disgusting acts. I am blown away by the fact that reporters were camped outside his office and home at all times of the day. I find the treatment disturbing and unneeded. He may not be innocent in all of this, but he has still earned the right to a dignified exit. It is a shame that his legacy ends with, and is likely remembered, for this.

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