The Firing of Legendary Penn State Coach Joe Paterno: An Ethical Dilemma

The firing of Joe Paterno as coach of Penn State has dominated the news this week. A legendary coach with the most wins in the history of major college football, Joe was dismissed for not doing more to stop the alleged sexual abuse of children by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

The news came as a shock, because in many ways Joe was considered an outstanding human being. Not only had he coached at Penn State for 61 years, he’d also donated more than $3 million to the university and helped raise more than $13 million for its library.

I feel badly about the Paterno firing for two reasons. First, I’m deeply saddened about the impact of the alleged sexual abuse on the victims and their families. Second, I’m saddened for the students at Penn State, who argued that the board of trustees should have allowed Joe at least one more game or let him finish the season. From their point of view, Joe had broken no laws. When he’d learned about the sexual abuse, he’d reported it to the athletic director and to the vice president.

As I thought about it this week, the case of Joe Paterno is a classic example of why it’s so important to do the Ethics Check when making key decisions. In our book The Power of Ethical Management: Integrity Pays! You Don’t Have To Cheat To Win, Norman Vincent Peale and I describe the Ethics Check, which poses a series of questions around three areas: legality, fairness, and self-esteem. The next time you’re faced with a dilemma, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is it legal? Will you be violating either civil law or organizational policy?

In today’s society, people tend to focus on this first aspect of the Ethics Check—the legal question. They think if they can get lawyers to okay the decision, they’re doing the right thing. But just because an action is legal does not make it ethical. To assure that you’re doing the right thing, it’s a good idea to review the second two aspects of the Ethics Check.

2.  Is it balanced? Is it fair to all concerned in the short term as well as the long term? Does it promote win-win relationships?

If Coach Paterno had really thought through the fairness question—if he had fully considered the trauma to the victims and their families—he might have realized that he needed to do more. He’s already made statements that he probably should have done more. The fairness question goes beyond the legal question and looks at the effect your decision will have on others.

3.  How will it make you feel about yourself?  Will it make you proud? Would you feel good if your decision was published in the newspapers? Would you feel good if your kids and grandkids knew about it?

Unethical behavior erodes self-esteem. That’s why you feel troubled when you make a decision that goes against your own innate sense of what’s right. As the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” Thinking through how you’d feel if your actions were published in the newspaper or if your kids found out about them can help you decide the right thing to do. I’m sure that if Paterno knew how this incident would dominate his reputation at the end of his career, he certainly would have done more.

This simple but powerful Ethics Check can help anyone—from world leaders to boards of directors to private citizens—make decisions that stand the test of time and result in the greatest good. When you look at all three aspects of the Ethics Check, you can see that in making their tough decision, the board of trustees at Penn State did the right thing.

8 thoughts on “The Firing of Legendary Penn State Coach Joe Paterno: An Ethical Dilemma

  1. Great points made here. It reminds me of something my father always told me – “just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.” Too often people feel that just because something is technically legal that it makes it alright to do – but often that is not the case.

    A couple of points that I feel need to be clarified:

    1. Sandusky is not accused of having relations with “students”. That makes it sound like we are talking about Penn State students – who would be adults and therefore able to consent to the activities described in the indictment. Sandusky is accused of victimizing CHILDREN – young children. This is important because that should have motivated Paterno even more to address the problem with decisive action immediately.

    2. John Wooden was not a UCLA football coach! John Wooden was the UCLA basketball coach. As a UCLA alum, I felt that was important to clarify!

    • Good points Daniel… that’s what you get for not proofreading your own blog postings! I have made a couple corrections based on your comments. Thanks for reading!

  2. This issue is much more than an ethics dilema and more severe than Paterno’s career. If he changed his actions based on his legacy, would he be any different? If the boys were his own would he simply go to his supervisor? If a religious leader found out a child was being abused and didn’t share it with the proper authorities, he’d be in trouble. To do nothing as Paterno did is the same as accepting the acts as okay.

  3. Very interesting piece. Just to know: who employed the Assistant Coach? To whom was he reporting? The students’ argument, I think, is that a line should be drawn on when to resign because an employee has messed things up. Joe may have known about the problem; but what really did he know? He may have heard rumours or something, but was it his duty to investigate a fellow colleague? I think there is more to this subject. If I am a Director and my deputy has messed up, at what point should I take over his burden? Ken has done a good job over the years educating us on management and leadership issues. The lines given here on how to ensure entegrity works are fine. But I am totally confused with this Joe example.

    Tom Dienya

  4. well if you need a lawyer to tell you if it’s right or wrong. you need help. and if someone said saw a man doing a kid, he needs more help then I can say. just sayin.

  5. Pingback: Values Must Be Lived, Not "Visited" | Driving Results Through Culture

  6. I appreciate your added points because I’ve been writing many of my own:

    I especially like the point about feeling proud of our decisions. We can’t take them back and the freedom to choose is an incredible privelage given with a lot of responsibility!

    Thanks for the post!

  7. The three points you raised certainly apply to coach Paterno, but more importantly they apply to the Penn State Board. (1) They violated civil and organizational administrative fairness, where coach Paterno as an employee of the university ought to be given a fair hearing (rather than being fired by a late night phone call without any prior discussion or consideration of disciplinary action); (2) their decision clearly wasn’t balanced in that they acted prior to having the necessary evidence to ruin the glorious career of an icon of Penn State, and in reality their decision was a lose-lose, rather than a win-win; and (3) I can’t imagine any Board member could feel good about what they did, particularly as further events and revelations will yield more precise information upon which to make a reasonable decision.

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