The Penn State board of trustees are at it again, reverse-engineering excuses for firing Joe Paterno in the frenzied weeks following the Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Following the tried-and-true policy of shoot first, ask questions later, the powers that be chose to dismiss Paterno unceremoniously over the phone in the middle of the season rather than allowing him to retire a few months later (or even giving him the simple courtesy of firing him in person). When we last heard from the board of trustees, they explained to an expectant public that the firing had taken place because they did not feel that Paterno could effectively carry on as coach in the midst of the scandal. “Paterno could not be expected to continue to effectively perform his duties and that it was in the best interests of the University to make an immediate change in his status.”
An outraged but reasonable public and an abysmal conclusion to the football season (8-1 before Paterno’s dismissal; 1-3 after) combined to make that kind of rationalization insufficient. Now the board of trustees is taking a more aggressive tack, claiming that Paterno’s fulfillment of his legal duties actually amounted to a failure on his part, demonstrating the remarkable ease with which the living are willing to speak ill of the dead. “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.” In other words, that Paterno did what was required of him and did not have the benefit of hindsight to indicate that he would be required to do more, represented the leadership deficiencies in a man who had been a leader in the entire State College community for decades.
According to trustee Keith Eckel, “Many people have indicated that they did not understand, and this is our last attempt to try to make it as clear as possible.” Curiously, many people still don’t understand even this last attempt; if this is as clear as it is possible to make the motivation, that says something about the clarity of the trustees thinking, both at the time and as they try to reconstruct a viable excuse in retrospect. Paterno’s lawyer, Wick Sollers, is among those who think that this newest explanation only makes clearer the true, rather than the professed, motivation for Paterno’s firing: “to deflect criticism of their leadership by trying to focus the blame on Joe Paterno. This is not fair to Joe’s legacy; it is not consistent with the facts; and it does not serve the best interests of the University…The Board’s latest statement reaffirms that they did not conduct a thorough investigation of their own and engaged in a rush to judgment.” Sollers is unsure why the board “believes it is necessary and appropriate to explain—for the fourth or fifth time—why they fired Joe Paterno so suddenly and unjustifiably on Nov. 9, 2011.”
Maybe it would benefit everyone to return to the moment of Paterno’s untimely demise (the one before his ultimate untimely demise) and consider what the board had to say about its motives then. “‘I’m not sure I can tell you specifically,’ board vice chair John Surma replied when asked at a packed news conference why Paterno had to be fired immediately. ‘In our view, we thought change now was necessary.'” There you have it, the unvarnished truth. The board had no idea why they needed to dismiss Paterno without investigation, without cause, and without the coolness of reasoning that even a moment’s delay may have prompted. They felt it needed to be done, because they felt the rising heat of controversy and felt compelled to make a burnt offering of the choicest calf. Everything that came after that has been an effort to self-justify in the cold light of hindsight.
The sick irony, sickest of all ironies, is that from the grave Paterno is proving a model of leadership for the board. When he looked back on his actions with the benefit of full knowledge and found them wanting, he admitted his shortcomings like a man and expressed regret. Would that the board could emulate that kind of leadership.