What Harper Lee Can Teach Parents About the Penn State Dilemma

I can imagine that Joe Paterno, the 84 year-old shrinking paterfamilias of Penn State football, might be doing some pretty intense soul searching these days.

The man many still tout as the best football coach in college history has deceived everyone, and his lie will likely haunt him for the rest of his life.

We all know the details. Let’s cut to the chase.

Paterno’s undoing was not what Jerry Sandusky did – although 40 counts of child sexual abuse are heinous enough – but his inability to stop him.

Why couldn’t a man entrusted with the Penn State football program keep a bunch of kids from being raped by one of his own guys, a member of the “family”?

The answer seems is almost incestuous. Paterno didn’t care enough to stop it. Maintaining the pristine image of Penn State football was far more important than any kids who might have been tormented for the rest of their lives.

One woman gave Paterno a chance to stop the lie, but he fought her tooth and nail. According to a Nov. 22, 2011 story in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Vicky Triponey, Penn State’s former standards and conduct officer, did battle with Joe Paterno on a regular basis.

She knew Paterno couldn’t have it both ways – lying to the community about his law-breaking players at the same time he was on his way to becoming the most celebrated football coach in college history.

In a Sept. 2005 email to Penn State President Graham Spanier, Triponey expresses outrage over Paterno’s insistence that football players not be held to the same code of conduct and discipline as the general student body. From the Journal:

“I would respectfully ask that you please do something to stop this atrocious behavior before this team and an entire generation of Penn State students leave here believing that this is appropriate and acceptable behavior within a civil university community.”

According to a former school official, the article states, “[S]ix football players were charged by police for forcing their way into a campus apartment that April and beating up several students, one of them severely.”

That was only one incident. Apparently, Penn State football players had a propensity for getting into trouble at a rate disproportionate to the rest of the student population.

Paterno’s hypocrisy is evident in this recent statement by Dr. Triponey, again from the Journal:

“There were numerous meetings and discussions about specific and pending student discipline cases that involved football players,” which she said included ‘demands’ to adjust the judicial process for football players. The end result, she said, was that football players were treated ‘more favorably than other students accused of violating the community standards as defined by the student code of conduct.’”

According to sources present at an Aug. 11 2007 meeting, Coach Paterno “loudly criticized Dr. Triponey” for meddling.

Meddling? She was doing her job.

In an email to then Athletic Director Tim Curley, Triponey summarized her impressions of the meeting:  “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.”

Curley responded that her impressions were indeed accurate.

If Paterno couldn’t stop a bunch of jocks barely past adolescence from breaking the law, how could he stop a hardened pedophile?

The truth is, Paterno didn’t have it in him. It was easier, and far more comfortable to be judge, jury and penal institution rolled into one than attract negative publicity.

Joe Paterno could learn something from a character out of one of America’s most important novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

The character’s name is Atticus Finch.

A widowed father and attorney in 1930s Alabama, Finch defends Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. When Atticus’s daughter Scout gets into a scuffle at school over the matter, Atticus explains to her why he took the case.  “For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to hold my head up in town or tell you or Jem (his son) not to do somethin’ again.”

When local vigilantes try to kidnap Tom and take the law into their own hands, they find Atticus guarding the courthouse, where Tom is locked up for his own protection. Atticus will not allow the bigots, and their attitude of entitlement, to prevail.

People with integrity are able to do the right thing, even when it’s unpopular. And they’re able to do it without hesitation. After years making winning his top priority, Paterno could not change. Something had to happen.

Harper Lee portrays Paterno’s moral dilemma beautifully. Just as Atticus could not have told Scout or Jem what to do again if he had not held up Tom Robinson’s cause, Paterno couldn’t do anything about Sandusky: He lived by his own brand of justice that flew in the face of the law.

For the same reason, parents lose all effectiveness if they allow their kids to drink alcohol, smoke pot, or sleep with their boyfriends.

Fighting the good fight is hard. Incredibly hard. But more important than anything we’re tasked with in our lifetime.

Triponey eventually got tired of the intimidation. In an email to the athletic department, she said if they wouldn’t let the school deal with football players like other students guilty of breaking the law, she could no longer notify them when players were in trouble.

Good ole’ Joe Pa responded by threatening to stop fund-raising for Penn State. What a guy.

Spanier subsequently visited Triponey at home, the article said, and told her that if it came down to choosing between Coach Paterno and her, he would pick Paterno.

Triponey resigned her post in September 2007 “following a tense meeting with Mr. Paterno over the case,” citing “philosophical differences.” She was replaced by a football-friendly successor, one who would not take Paterno to task.

Organizations fighting child sexual abuse don’t have the money in their budgets to get the kind of publicity Paterno brought to the cause, said Sandra Wellman, clinical director of Bethesda, Inc., the only freestanding center in Oklahoma dedicated to the treatment and prevention of child sexual abuse.

Located in Norman, OK, the center serves hundreds each year and continues to take new cases.

While Wellman decries Sandusky’s crimes as “horrific,” she sees Paterno’s role as an unintended blessing. “If something good can come of that, it’s that (Paterno) has raised public awareness.”

Parents need to know who their children are with at all times. And they don’t have to let them spend time with people who make them uncomfortable—regardless of the individual’s status or position.

Most kids find it very difficult if not impossible to rebuff an adult. That’s why they need parents and other responsible adults to do the screening for them.

If you have a bad feeling in your gut about someone, act on it.  Kids get that feeling, too. Ask, “How does that person make you feel? Do you feel comfortable with them?”  And then listen to what they have to say. Watch for signs and listen for cues. Kids who keep secrets are not happy.

Recently I had a chance to speak with Sgt. Hugh Velasquez of the Colorado Springs Police Department Crimes Against Children Unit. What’s his “take away” from the whole Penn State mess? It’s everyone’s responsibility to report not just witnessed child abuse, but suspected abuse as well, he said. “It’s always better to let the police or DHS investigate, and find out if there is any merit to it, than to find out later that there was.”   FG

Note – For further reading on the predatory behavior of male athletes and the culture of entitlement, I highly recommend Our Guys – The Glenridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, by Bernard Lefkowitz (University of California Press, 1997). Based on six years of research and more than 200 interviews, Lefkowitz’s account is not only true to the events that took place, but deeply disturbing; and will keep you spellbound to the very end. This book should be should be required reading for all parents, coaches, teachers and administrators.

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