Professionalism/Joe Paterno and the Penn State Board of Trustees

Joe PaternoEdit

Joe Paterno's reputation preceded him coming into to his 46th season in 2011. During his 62 years at Penn State University he had 409 victories, more than any other major college football coach [1]. And all these victories brought in money for the school. In the 2010 season alone, Joe Paterno's coaching helped bring in $53 million [1]. Besides bringing in money for the school through the football program, Joe Paterno personally donated $5 million to the university to build a library and a spiritual center. He helped generate hundreds of millions of dollars that evolved Penn State from an agriculture-centric school into the well-respected research institute it's known as today [1].

While he brought in money and prestige for Penn State, some thought he should have resigned during his last few years. He was even asked to resign after his contract ended in 2008 by Penn State president Graham Spanier and the Penn State Board of Trustees [2]. However, as evidenced by his continual coaching, his power over Penn State reigned until the Sandusky scandal. Paterno had an untouchable record, but some believe he also held too much power over the university. Some abuses of this power has risen to surface amid the scandal in 2011. Vicky Triponey, a former Penn State standards and conduct officer, wrote an email in 2005 to the PSU president at the time Graham Spanier. The email described how she felt that football players got special treatment for their misbehaving. One line in particular alludes to his actions in 2002 against Sandusky: "Coach Paterno would rather we NOT inform the public when a football player is found responsible for committing a serious violation of the law and/or our student code," she wrote, "despite any moral or legal obligation to do so" [3]. At least 35 Penn State football players from 2003-2009 were charged with misconducts or crimes ranging from marijuana possession to sexual assault. However, Joe Paterno expressed concern that the players received less punishment. "Many times, (because of) the pressure placed on us by the president or the football coach, eventually, we would end up doing sanctions that were not what another student would've got," Triponey said. "It was much less. It was adapted to try to accommodate the concerns of the coach" [3]. Other examples include Joe Paterno protecting Rene Portland, the former PSU women’s basketball coach whose team policy was “no drugs, no alcohol, no lesbians”[4]. Joe Paterno supported Portland throughout her 25 years as coach. Penn State in turn defended Rene as well because of Paterno’s influence, and therefore she was allowed to openly discriminate against lesbians on her teams.


On November 4th, 2011, Jerry Sandusky, former assistant coach football coach under Joe Paterno at Pennsylvania State University, was indicted and charged with over 40 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. [5] Sandusky also had a founded the Second Mile, a football charity organization to for under privileged children. Sandusky used Pennsylvania facilities for the Second Mile Program and is accused of abusing many children in the Penn State locker room showers.

Mike McQueary, a 28 year old graduate assistant, saw Sandusky subjecting a ten year old boy to sexual intercourse in the Penn State showers. (This statement is a false assertion. McQueary had given investigators a hand-written statement in which he asserted: "I did not see insertion. I am certain that sexual acts/the young boy being sodomized was occurring." [Sara Ganim, Harrisburg Patriot-News 11 December 2011]) The next morning, a Saturday, McQueary telephoned and went to Paterno’s home to report what he had seen. (McQueary testified under oath that he never used the term "sodomy" or "anal intercourse" when he notified Paterno about what he saw in the shower on 1 March 2002. [p. Preliminary Hearing Transcript, p. 25] (In fact, McQueary testified under oath that he could not recall using the words "sexual assault," when talking to Paterno, or even using the word "crime" to describe Sandusky's behavior) Actually, McQueary's preliminary hearing testimony substantiates Paterno's earlier assertion (in a news release) that McQueary "at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the grand jury report." [Star-Ledger Wire Services, Nov. 8, 2011]) On Sunday, Paterno then called Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley (Paterno’s immediate superior) and told him Sandusky had been fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy. (It's also worth mentioning at this point that McQueary did testify he was sure he used the term "fondling" when talking to Paterno on 2 March 2002. Thus, that testimony clearly substantiates Paterno's grand jury testimony, where he asserted that he told Athletic Director Tim Curley that McQueary "had seen Jerry Sandusky in the Lasch Building showers fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy." [Grand Jury Report, p. 7] It also answers the question posed by many disparagers of Paterno: "How was the sordid anal intercourse witnessed by McQueary passed up Penn State's chain of command by Paterno as mere "fondling?" Now you know. Anal intercourse was never mentioned, but Sandusky's rough positioning and fondling were!)

About 2 weeks later, Curley and Senior VP for Finance and Business, Gary Schultz met with McQueary, who again reported what he had seen. Curley and Schultz told him they would look further into it and determine what action to take. That action was taking Sandusky’s keys to the locker room and reporting the incident to Second Mile. Spanier was informed of the incident by Curley and Schultz, but testified that he did not know it was a sexual crime, merely “horsing around in the shower."[6] He did not know who originally reported the behavior and acknowledged that Curley and Schultz had not planned to report the matter to police or child protective services.

McQueary never was questioned by University Police and no investigation was held until later Curley and Schultz were accused of perjury for not reporting the incident to police. Paterno did his legal duty to report to Schultz and Curley, so he as well as Spanier had no charges. However, according to the Board of Trustees on Paterno: did not call police and they determined that his decision to do his minimum legal duty and not to do more to follow up constituted a failure of leadership. [7]

Ethical DilemmaEdit

Bystander EffectEdit

Throughout the years that Sandusky continued to commit his crimes, many people who witnessed or were told of the events did little action to stop Sandusky other than pass responsibility off to someone else. In particular, this bystander effect was displayed by Paterno and Spanier in the eyes of the Penn State Board of Trustees. While the Board recognized Paterno did his legal obligation by reporting the incident in 2002 to Time Curley, his superior, “ the Board reasonably inferred that he did not call police. We determined that his decision to do his minimum legal duty and not to do more to follow up constituted a failure of leadership by Coach Paterno” [7]. The Board also found that Spanier “failed to meet his leadership responsibilities to the Board and took insufficient action after learning of a 2002 incident involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and a young boy in a Penn State facility” [7]. In the grand jury presentment both Paterno and Spanier testified to not knowing the seriousness of the situation and that the actions taken by Curley were enough (Sandusky’s locker room keys were taken away). However, Paterno had reported to his superior that the graduate assistant had seen Sandusky “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy” [8].Clearly that was enough to provoke enough concern to have multiple meetings between Paterno, Curley, Spanier and other Penn State employees. The Board had to decide whether Paterno and Spanier’s lack of action deserved firing. The bystander effect played a role in this case because Paterno and Spanier could have done more in response to the 2002 incident but they instead passed it on as someone else’s responsibility and did not follow up on the action taken against Sandusky.

The same could be said of Rodney Rocha and the Columbia disaster in 2003. Rocha knew of the technological flaw and at first demanded more action to be taken to protect Columbia passengers. However, after his superiors consistently shot his suggestions down, he became quiet and relied on their actions to be enough. Unfortunately, exactly what Rocha had been trying to prevent happened and the Columbia shuttle fell apart killing the seven passengers aboard. However, in the Penn State case, both Paterno and Spanier had the power and superiority to do more, they simply did not. Therefore, when the Board decided on dismissing both employees, it was because of their lack of leadership.

A similar sentiment can be seen in the Milgram experiment, where 65% of the participants administered the final massive 450-volt shock. It was a scary look on how people can blindly follow superior’s instructions, even when those instructions cause harm to other people. Paterno and Spanier both had superiority in Penn State, but both lacked the leadership to follow up on the welfare of Penn State employees and the 2002 victim. They blindly trusted that Curley had appropriately handled the incident without going out of their way to make sure truly suitable action had been taken.

Financial Pressure & ReputationEdit

Joe Paterno brought in a great deal of money for Pennsylvania State University. He transformed the university from mainly an agricultural environment to a football and academic powerhouse. The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees knew how much power Joe Paterno had and realized how much he had contributed to the University. “Paterno's fund-raising efforts, including campaigns using his name, have resulted in about $2 billion for Penn State” resulting in the addition of the law and medical schools at Penn State. [9]

The Board of Trustees had a very difficult decision to resolve on November 9th 2011, where they ultimately fired Graham Spainer, Pennsylvania State President and Joe Paterno, head football coach. However, guided by their obligation as trustees, the decision was made to “always put the interests of the university first.”[7] This statement shows there was a great deal of pressure on the Board because many saws Joe Paterno as the creator of what Pennsylvania State is today. There was a great deal of financial pressure as well as the University’s reputation at stake. Nonetheless, the Board chose to fire Joe Paterno because “his decision to do his minimum legal duty and not to do more to follow up constituted a failure of leadership.” [7] Even though Joe Paterno, some say, made Pennsylvania State, the financial gain was not enough to overlook the misfortune that occurred with the young boys.

The Pennsylvania State Board of Trustees made the decision uphold the morals and interests of the University by firing Joe Paterno and risk the financial support that he brought with it. Similar to this situation, Frances Oldham Kelsey chose to put the welfare of the public above the financial pressure she received from many pharmaceutical companies. While working for the FDA, Kelsey refused to approve the thalidomide drug, which was very popular in Europe, due to lack of data showing the drugs side effects. She faced a great deal of pressure from many companies; some even offered her a great deal of money to approve the drug. However, her professional decision did not waiver and ultimately saved thousands of children from a debilitating birth defect.

Another example that shows how professional decisions were made at the expense of financial gain was Johnson & Johnson's Response to the 1982 Tylenol Poisonings. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson’s Extra Strength Tylenol was contaminated and killed 7 people. As a result, the company issued a recall, which “included over 31 million bottles at an estimated retail value of over $100 million [10]. This company took the deaths of the 7 innocent people very seriously and weren’t willing to risk any more lives even a financial gain.

The Pennsylvania State Board of Trustees made a difficult decision that put the financial welfare of the school on the line. However, the lives of the innocent children that were victimized by one of their employees were not worth the financial gain.


Accountability is an ineffable term that carries a heavy meaning. In a leadership position, accountability is the action of taking responsibility for one’s actions and all consequences that result from that decision. [11]

The Penn State Board of Trustees had a very difficult job once they became aware of the Jerry Sandusky scandal; who is accountable? Ultimately, the board felt that Joe Paterno’s “decision to do his minimum legal duty and not to do more to follow up constituted a failure of leadership” [12]. As the old English proverb goes, with knowledge comes great responsibility. One must take accountability for a situation if they know they can wrong the right. The United States President Harry S. Truman had a plaque on his desk which read “the buck stops here.” [13]. President Truman was making a public statement that he will take accountability for his actions and the actions of the United States. The Board of Trustees decided to fire Paterno because they knew he heard of what Jerry Sandusky had done but instead of taking responsibility for the Sandusky situation, Paterno decided to pass the problem off to his superiors.

Firing Joe Paterno is possibly one of the most difficult decisions the Penn State Board of Trustees had to make. By doing so, they showed the public that they are taking accountability for the actions of their workers. The Board of Trustees is showing that they will go above the minimum legal requirement of the law and take responsibility for their employees. The movie Office Space demonstrates the effects of bosses not take accountability for their workers; the workers stop caring for their job and start trying to undermine the company. The eight different bosses in Office Space didn’t take accountability for Peter Gibbons who ended up taking advantage of the company.

As Ken Frazier, of the Board of Trustees put it “…. [E]very adult has a responsibility for every child in our community. And …we have a responsibility not to do the minimum, the legal requirement. We have a responsibility for ensuring that we can make every effort that’s within our power not only to prevent further harm to that one child, but to every child. That is our commitment to the children … and to the core values that have always made Penn State a great university." [10] Frazier demonstrates that Penn State University holds accountability as one of the most important core values because Penn State takes responsibility for their workers and their actions.


Professionalism occurs at all levels. Tough decisions and actions are required to uphold the integrity of the organization. The Penn State Board of Trustees took accountability for their employee's actions and ultimately decided that the best way to uphold the integrity of Penn State University was to let Joe Paterno go. Despite Joe Paterno's economic value he only did his minimum legal action which was not enough [7].


  1. a b c Pennington, Bill. (Nov, 2011) Paterno, the King of Pennsylvania, Until Now. The New York Times.
  2. Viera, Mark (Nov, 2011) Paterno is Finished at Penn State, and President Is Out. The New York Times.
  3. a b Associated Press (2011) Report: Treatment of Players Questioned.
  4. Garcia, Michelle (Nov. 2011) Did Paterno Also Cover Up PSU Basketball's Homophobia?
  5. Viera, Mark (Nov, 2011) Former Coach at Penn State Is Charged With Abuse.
  6. (Dec. 2011) Sandusky on horsing around in the shower: "That was just me."
  7. a b c d e f (2012) Report of the Board of Trustees concerning Nov. 9 decisions.
  8. Sandusky Grand Jury Presentment.
  9. Kline, Bill (2012) Joe Paterno built Penn State on, off field
  10. a b Hyland, Tim (2012) Penn State Trustees: Paterno Fired for Lack of 'Leadership', additional text.
  11. Williams, Reyes(2006) Leadership accountability in a globalizing world. London: Palgrave Macmillan
  12. Schilken, Chuck. (Mar. 2012) Joe Paterno was fired for 'failure of leadership,' trustees say
  13. "The Buck Stops Here" Desk Sign