Monday, November 14, 2011

What Joe Paterno did and didn't do

Faced with Joe Paterno's apparent complicity in a sexual abuse coverup, the nation's media is currently undergoing a bit of reckoning. Cue a stream of columns and articles that attempt to square the biography of the previously-admirable old man with the horrifying allegations against his former colleague. Most of what I've read seems to fall into one of two camps. First, there's the view adopted by ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, perhaps most aptly described as Paterno-as-Machiavelli.
His spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall prove once more that absolute power absolutely corrupts or, at the very least, blurs the vision. And make no mistake: Paterno's power and influence at Penn State was often vast and overpowering.

"Joe is -- was -- in absolute control of Penn State athletics," says a former BCS conference official who had a long working relationship with Paterno. "There's no question about it."

Says another BCS conference administrator: "Joe's got a dark side. He's not always that witty old man. Joe can be very, very tough. He's very smart."

The more phone calls you make to those who know Paterno, who have worked with Paterno and who have socialized with Paterno, the more you realize he isn't simply the smiling cardboard cutout figure that the riotous crowds in downtown State College used as a symbol of their unrest.

The descriptions from one administrator: "Fabulous and horrendous" … "Surreptitious" … "Self-absorbed" … "Calculating" … "Protective of everything he's done."

JoePa is three-dimensional, capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and charity, as well as extraordinary acts of backroom politics. But he isn't who we thought he was.
Then there's the view of the New York Times' Ross Douthat: that Paterno was a saint, undone by his own saintliness.
It was precisely because Joe Paterno had done so much good for so long that he could do the unthinkable, and let an alleged child rapist continue to walk free in Penn State’s Happy Valley.

Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.

I believe that Joe Paterno is a good man. I believe Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, the brilliant sportswriter who is working on a Paterno biography, when he writes that Paterno has “lived a profoundly decent life” and “improved the lives of countless people” with his efforts and example.
Both these explanations strike me as supremely silly. And both, in their own way, aggrandize Paterno. In both, he remains a towering figure, more than a man, someone capable of inhuman feats of both good and evil.

Let me be the killjoy here and offer a third, more boring, and more plausible theory: Joe Paterno was neither a misguided saint nor a secret Machiavelli -- he was just a old man. And his complicity in the Penn State scandal was the result of him acting no differently than other people act. More specifically, he operated under the influence of some extremely commonplace cognitive biases. As far as I can tell, he made three major errors -- errors that might not have fooled a collegiate demigod, but could befall most old men -- and although in another context they could have been harmless, here they led to his downfall. In no particular order:

Keeping it in the family: Obviously, this is the big one, the one that will dog Penn State in the months and years ahead. Increasingly it seems that the university encouraged a culture of silence, letting the administration and its police force quietly address problems related to the football program, so as to not tarnish the school's national reputation. But let me suggest there's a difference -- in intent, if not result -- between "keeping it in the family" and a more conventional coverup. There's no indication that Paterno acted with the intent of helping Sandusky avoid punishment or justice. Instead, Paterno appears to have misidentified the correct authority for dealing with the situation. Rather than pitching Sandusky in front of the police, the courts, or society at large, Paterno seems to have believed that the correct arbiter was the Penn State administration. Penn State and its related institutions played such a large role in his life that they eventually, for him, began to blot out the legitimate institutions that govern society.

Today, we can all see the horrible outcome of this error, but I think if we're being honest with ourselves, we also have to admit we're all susceptible to it. The importance of an institution is determined as much by proximity as by logic. We all value the judgment of our friends more than the judgment of strangers; society's justice is often less important than family justice. And I believe that most people, in a similar situation, would feel a similar instinct. If you saw someone doing something wrong at work, would you call the police or call the boss? If you saw a friend commit a crime, would the first number you dialed be 911 or a mutual acquaintance? We all want to answer the former, but history and experience counsels that, more often than not, we'll do the latter instead.

Passing the buck: Paterno, just like McQueary (the witness) before him, apparently felt that his responsibility for resolving the problem ended the moment he informed a superior that the problem existed. We all know about Stanley Milgram and the very human tendency to defer to authority; the Paterno affair illustrates the flipside of that problem, and shows why deference can be so appealing. We defer to authority because deference absolves us of the responsibility to figure out tricky questions for ourselves. And thanks to the instinctual tendency to keep it in the family, I'm sure the Sandusky question seemed tricky enough. No doubt Paterno -- like McQueary -- felt that the approach that had been taken was probably the correct approach, by virtue of the fact that the Boss-man had taken it.

Playing telephone: The nature of Sandusky's offenses mutated over time, as they were passed between Penn State officials. As they were reported up the chain of authority at Penn State, the specifics vanished and were replaced with non-descriptive mush. As described by Harrisburg's Patriot-News:
According to the grand jury, then, here is how McQueary’s eyewitness account became watered down at each stage:

McQueary: anal rape.
Paterno: something of a sexual nature.
Schultz: inappropriately grabbing of the young boy’s genitals.
Curley: inappropriate conduct or horsing around.
Spanier: conduct that made someone uncomfortable.
Raykovitz: a ban on bringing kids to the locker room.
Up the entire chain of authority, you see an unwillingness to describe Sandusky's crimes as what they actually were. Instead, the description of the event became bureaucratized; the awful "anal rape" became the ambiguous "inappropriate grabbing" and eventually the barely-merits-concern "conduct that made someone uncomfortable."

The tone in the news story suggests this was somehow intentional -- that ambiguity was being used as a tactic to protect Sandusky -- but personally, I find that idea untenable. It's a clumsy way to orchestrate a conspiracy of silence, requiring participation from too many parties. The basic problem, on the other hand, can happen to anyone -- Telephone is a children's game for a reason.

Although each link in the chain appears to have stripped significant amounts of information out of the story, it's likely that nobody is truly at fault here. More probably, the gradual thinning out of the charges represents the difficulty of describing horrific acts of sexual violence in the sterilized language we've decided is appropriate for professional interaction. I also suspect the problem was inadvertently worsened by the severity of the crimes, which could have caused the parties to choose their words with greater than ordinary caution. Unfortunately, the perception that scandals and crimes should be addressed as neutrally and seriously as possible often leads participants to use more Adminspeak, not less -- even when the simple clarity of day-to-day language would more than suffice.

I don't mean to defend Paterno, of course. Precisely because these biases are so commonplace and their effects can be so corrosive, we expect our leaders to rise above them and do what's right instead of what's normal. And perhaps Paterno, with so many years' experience, should have known more than most about the psychological maladies that plague institutions. But it's not hard to understand how the scandal could have happened, even without grandiose moral theories or dramatic revisions to Paterno's character.

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