Brad Hirschfield: What would you do if you were former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno?

Jul 13, 2012

Brad Hirschfield, who usually discusses ethics in the news, chatted at 11 a.m. with readers about the Penn State sex abuse investigation and the actions taken by leadership including former football coach Joe Paterno.

Follow @OnFaith on Twitter

For more information spirituality, ethics and related topics, visit On Faith

Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, former Penn State Presient Spanier -- it's easy to feel outraged at them, but would we have behaved better?  I want to think so, but....


What went wrong at Penn State and how can we keep things like that from happening again, or at least making sure that they happen less often?  What do you think?

What is the morals and what is ethics? Difference and similiarities? Thank you!!

Great question! It's good to reiterate this distinction from time to time, especially as it shapes this discussion in fundamental ways.


Morals and ethics are certainly related, and while others may disagree, the distinction has to do with answers versus animating principles, and relationships.  Morality, as it is usually used, refers to a fixed set of norms or answers that flow out of some independant code or doctrine.  Ethics, while often drawing on the latter and hopefully offering real guidance, also appreciates that context counts -- that the relationship between those trying to figure out what to do matters, that the answers you get, even from fixed principles, can vary, even as you honor the principles.


Hope that helps!

I've noticed this is common, senior leadership in an organization will do anything in the name of protecting the organization (and themselves). Actually, it seems to be the norm, not the exception. I know you tend to be optimistic, but I don't see a correction for this.

You are correct that I tend to be optomisitc and the Penn State case is another reason why!  Assuming that people's interest in this is more than pornographic, and I do think that is a fair assumption, the hurt and anger demonstrate that people not only know what happend is wrong, but want to make things better.


As you said, leaders protect the institutions they lead and people tend to protect themselves.  Isn't that the way is should be though?  Wouldn't you protext an institution you loved and don't you tend to protect yourself?  Of course you do!  We all do!  That's being human, but it's not cause for despair and it's certainly no excuse for those at Penn State who failed to act.


We simply need to redefine what it means to protect, to include critique and even punishment of that which we love.  We need leaders who appreciate that to defend the values and vision that their beloved institution is meant to make real, sometimes demands tough actions and painful confrontations.  They need to appreciate that sometimes, that can be the greatest act of protection and loyalty there is.

As someone who works with words, I believe some of this tragedy was compounded by the use of squishy imprecise euphemisms which allowed the discussions that then ensued to be distanced from the reality of what had occurred. It underpinned and justified the inaction of the powerful men in those discussions. It ALLOWED for the failure of their imagination. Let it be a lesson to us all--use words that mean something and that carry the weight or the horror of what we bear witness to.

Interesting perspective; thanks for sharing.

After looking at the Freeh report yesterday and coming to an understanding of Joe Paterno's role in the Sandusky scandal, one question has yet to be answered in my mind: given how much people are ripping him and his reputation to shreds on online message boards, are we not forgetting that he's already paid the ultimate price? Which is to say, he's already died, technically from cancer but probably in no small part due to the scandal. I'm not offering a defense of Joe Paterno, but the fact that he's dead means there's no more he can do to make penance. Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, Graham Spanier, they're all still living and could possibly end up in jail (and even then, that probably won't be enough for some people). But with Joe Paterno already gone, what more do people want from him?

"Technically from cancer"?  You think that scandal killed Joe Paterno as much as the cancer did?  And you think that somehow that was a penance for his failures as a leader?  Does that mean you think he derserved to die as a punishment for his sins?  If so, yours is a far harsher position than those who are, in your words, shredding him online!


You are certainly correct that people can and do get carried away in their comments, but that doesn't mean that this is over or that people still don't need to vent their outrage.  People feel hurt.  They feel let down by a person and/or institution they admired. 


The trick is to remember that even when the worst of new relvelations about someone or soemthing we love are true, the previous good things can also still be true, and often are.  The trick lies in holding on to both truths.  Without that, you are correct, this is not about penance and atonement, it's just scapegoating -- wanting to rid ourselves of a painful past.

Joe Paterno would have done the right thing if it was his own grandson that was being sexually abused. Instead it was some faceless boy who they never even bothered to find out the identity of. "As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

You are so right about the fact that were one to assume that the pain being inflicted on strangers were being inflicted on those we loved, we would do more to stop it.  It is also true however that it is both natural and good that we love and protect those closest to us e.g. I love my kids more than I love yours.  So what to do?


Embrace the reality that we love those closest to us even as you continuously seek to widen the circle.  Accept that it will not include everybody and it will not include all those it includes equally, but it can always be an expanding circle which incudes more people more fully and more often.



I'm enjoying today's discussion, but let me put a plug in for one to address next week, then -- more local, and more subtle. Did Vincent Gray, or his campaign team, do anything wrong. Did the ends justify the means. Did any of these things matter, given polls show he would have won anyway, without Sulaiman Brown or off-books campaign finance. These are the issues today, and the way the Post chooses to cover them, that leave me wondering -- what would I do? Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Appreciate the idea and the matter, as it unfolds whether via media or private conversations among friends/neighbors/etc.  is definitely worthy of further discussion.

How can people so educated, be so stupid in their judgement? You're supposed to be college educated, higher degreed people! Just venting here, but someone thought "counseling" would work with a known pedophile? I haven't read the whole report but why didn't someone notify the authorities! I feel so bad for the victims of this horrible horrible man.

It's a great point!  You are doing far more than "just venting".  You are pointing out that our decision-making processes are not simply intellectual issues based on the facts before us.


We want to protect the people and institutions about whcih we care and so can be blind to what we would otherwise know -- in this case the foolishness and dangerousness of the response to Sandusky's assaults on kids.  But it's precisley because of that impulse that we MUST turn things over to authorities -- authorities with no interest in anyone but the victims or potential victims. That was actually their biggest failure here.  the rest is simply being human. 


Of course those last to sentences are a bit like saying, "other than that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?"! 

I go back and forth with two reasons why this happened, and the two are not mutually exclusive. The first is a comfort thing- no one wanted to accept that their friend and coworker was a monster, so they entered a sort of denial where they allowed themselves to know yet sweep under the rug his crimes. The second is a money thing. Penn State Football was the biggest ambassador to the university, attracting students and donations as well as television and bowl revenues. Publically acknowledging the scandal would have jeopardized all of that. ESPN reported that each Big-10 team got about $20.7 million annually from football television rights, not including conference championships and bowl revenues, which could more than double that. Simply put they let young boys be victimized because it could risk that revenue. Their end of the Faustian bargain was worth $20.7 million.

I think that you are correct on both counts, and while neither gets them a pass on their misdeeds, you point us toward the solutions we need to keep this from happening again.


First, we need to find ways that people can BOTH protect those about whom they care AND turn to the authorities.  Charges of sexual abuse need to be reported more agressiviely and those against whom the charges are brought need to be better protected, at least until their guilt can be determined.  Do the latter can encourage the former, and doing the former is one of the most important things we can do to keep kids safe.


On the money front, we would need to make sure that even when something like this happened, it would not jeopardize all the good the school is accomplishing, including all the good that it's football program was accomplishing even as it was also allowing one man to destroy the lives of some.  If schools knew that when it came to funding, the coices were not between being perfect and being broke, they could be more honest about their imperfections, even the horrific ones, and still be viable.

Are there really ethics any more - we have receded into a TMZ and ESPN fueled rut of sensationlist, mob reporting - not many think for themselves any more, but instead take talking heads opinions as gospel. All about the ratings and those that bark loudest seem to get the ratings.

While I appreciate your comments and do feel some of that concern, isn't the fact that we are all here engaging in this conversation an idication that "all is not lost"?


Here's what I suggest: stop worrying about what is wrong, get all your friend to particpate in this weekly chat, watch the numbers go up, and feel good that you are actually helping to repair our public culture.  How's that for a plan?

Wow, this is a tough subject for an ethics chat. The case itself seems clearly black and white (that Sandusky is guilty of a heinous crime and that some of his colleagues, including Paterno, were involved in covering them up). I think one question here is, what is the ethical role of the press? Obviously, now that an official report has been released, many in the press are condemning Paterno and the PSU administration in the harshest terms. Are they simply jumping on the bandwagon? Should the role of the press be to broadcast their own outrage or simply report the facts, ma'am, and let the public come to their own emotional conclusions? Some even argue that the media should have been more outraged when the story first broke, while Paterno was still alive. Since I generally agree with what is being written about these horrible crimes, my emotional reaction is to be totally on board with all the media and public outrage. However, I know an emotional reaction is not equivalent to ethical responsibility.

I don't know who you are, but you are genuinley wise and I thank you for your comments.  In  fact, the over-easy plunge into the outrage pool is just what I want to avoid.


The piling on approach you point out is actually an easy way for people to feel morally superior and a bit safer because they have identified, and hopefully "killed" the monster in the story.  Of course, punishments are in order here, but that is not the most important thing.


The ethical response to this situation is to ask with regard to what issues are we shutting our own eyes?  Who should we be standing up for, but are not?  Where have we confused love and loyalty with blind obedience and excuse-making?  Using events in the lives of others to invite ourselves to ask teh questions which those others should have asked -- that's the ethical response.

I don't think the earlier poster meant that Paterno's death was divine retribution, just that the stress hastened his death. His point is that he's dead, and all the anger directed at him is useless. But his reputation is not dead (yet). The statues and the buildings named after him are still there; the myth (apparently) that football is less important than character is still there. It's that reputation they're aiming to destroy.

But whould'nt his reputation be touched by these events?  Is it not appropriate that for one such as Paterno especially, one whose fame was built not just upon his victories but upon his decency and morality, that we see him differently in light of how he handled himself in this matter -- especially as the "matter" was a series of evetns which went on for years?!


Please note that I said his reputation and legacy should be effected, not destroyed, as some are trying to do.  If great literature, from Homer to the Bible to Shakespeare can all live with flawed heros who despite their flaws, and sometimes because of them, remain heros, why can't we?  In fact we must and are better for it when we do.

Where is the appropriate line between situations that require taking action and minding your own business? Clearly any time a child is being hurt falls in the first category, but there are many times I see/hear of something wrong (coworker committing time card fraud, acquantice cheating on spouse) and decide it's not my place. Again, I believe Joe Paterno/Penn State acted wrongly, but what guidelines should we be using to figure out when we need to do the right thing?

There is no single line -- that is what distiguishes ethics from morality.  In your time card case, you would need to assess all of the possible options including speaking with the offender, addressing the problem w/o causing retribution to the offender, determining if the theft involved was effecting others by weakening the company, etc.  Only then could you know how to respond, but whatever the response, when you see someone stealing, it IS your business.  You may not be obligated to fix it, but that doesn't mean you can simply look away and not think about either.


We don't have to fix every problem we see, but that doesn't mean we can spend the majority of our lives practicing purposefull blindness either.  I wish Joe Paterno and the rest at Penn State had understood that.  It could have saved a great many kids an inestimable amount of pain.

Time is at hand and my hands are tired!  That will have to do it for this week.


As always, thanks for so many wonderful questions and comments.  Don't forget that we can continue the conversation when you find me on facebook and follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
Recent Chats
  • Next: