The Week in Ethics: How PSU’s President Spanier and Coach Paterno Lost the Game

Update November 1, 2012: Criminal charges were filed today against former president Graham Spanier for perjury, criminal conspiracy, obstruction and endangering the welfare of children.

Update January 23, 2012, Joe Paterno died January 22, 2012. See my column “After Paterno, Penn State’s Struggle to Rebuild Trust”in Business Ethics Magazine.

Update December 3, 2011, In a New York Times interview published today, Jerry Sandusky  says “I am not the monster I’ve been made out to be,” asserting, “I’ve never engaged in sexual acts with these young kids.” Speaking in incomplete and disjointed sentences , he says in an audio excerpt, “Some things could be plausible that they came up with. I don’t know. They haven’t been fair. And I guess it has created a monster.”

UPDATE November 9, 2011, 8 PM   Coach Paterno and President Spanier fired by Penn State University Trustees in a meeting tonight. Effective immediately, Spanier is replaced by Rodney Erickson as acting president and Paterno is replaced by interim Head Coach Tom Bradley. In a statement, the trustees said the university “has always strived for honesty, integrity and the highest moral standards in all of our activities. We promise you that we are committed to restoring public trust in our university”.

It makes no sense that a university president, who is also a noted sociologist, and a Hall of Fame football coach, who is a sports icon, would fail to do everything in their power to find out if young boys were being sexually abused on campus by someone involved with the university’s football program.

And yet, Graham Spanier,  President of Penn State University, and head coach Joe Paterno didn’t, according to the findings of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office Grand Jury investigation. The investigation addressed the reported sexual assaults of male children by Gerald (Jerry) Sandusky, one of Paterno’s former coaches.

Strident criticism has mounted in the last few days calling for both men to resign or be fired. Paterno announced his resignation today (11/9/11) to occur at the end of the season. Rumors have escalated that Spanier will lose his job. (Spanier was fired tonight as was Paterno.)

These are honorable men who have been associated with high ethical standards so the question becomes why weren’t they vigilant in getting to the truth or dealing with the matter head on?

Is it  about protecting a storied football program that hasn’t had a NCAA violation?

Or that even in service of good – the shaping and educating of college students – leaders can lose their way, caught by compartmentalization, rationalization, fear, or misplaced priorities?

Whatever the answer, the university’s scandal is also about failed leadership and the harm done to trust and reputation.

Paterno, PSU head football coach for the last 45 years, and one of the most revered coaches in football history, said about the sex abuse revelations, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Paterno and Spanier, president for the last 16 years, were not charged in the investigation. However, criminal charges related to 40 counts of child sex abuse were filed November 5, 2011 against Sandusky; Athletic Director Timothy Curley and Gary Schultz, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business, were charged with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse. All three pled not guilty.

The incidents of child sex abuse alleged against Sandusky are outlined in a timeline. Many are reported to have occurred when Sandusky brought children to campus. He founded an organization for at-risk youth. However, the 1998 and 2002 incidents in campus showers particularly raise questions about what Paterno and Spanier knew, should have known, and what should have been done.

Sandusky admitted inappropriate sexual conduct in a 1998 investigation triggered by an 11 year-old’s mother. The investigation involved PSU security and the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare. He didn’t lose his job. In 2002, a graduate assistant saw him having anal intercourse with a 10-year old, and reported it. In dispute is what Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier understood to have happened. PSU did not conduct an investigation according to the graduate assistant, now a PSU coach, nor were the police notified as required by law. The child wasn’t identified to see if he needed help or treatment. Sandusky, who retired in 1999 but was a volunteer in the football program, had his locker room keys taken away, but didn’t  lose campus access.

When the Grand Jury made charges against Curley and Schultz, Spanier announced his unconditional confidence in how both had handled the accusations, a highly unusual step for a leader to take before all the facts are in.

It is hard to understand why Spanier didn’t insist on an investigation to ensure he knew whether the university was being put at risk, or putting community children at risk. It begs the question if these incidents had been associated with an English teacher, rather than a football coach, would the PSU’s actions have been the same?

Much will be said about Coach Paterno’s legacy. At 84-years old, with more than 60 years involved in PSU, he is beloved far beyond the university’s campus. Why he didn’t fire Sandusky or eliminate his volunteer status isn’t yet known.

Spanier called the allegations about Sandusky “troubling. He said, “It is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly. Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance.”

Protecting children does require utmost vigilance; a vigilance neither his actions or those of  his team appear to have demonstrated to PSU’s stakeholders.

He moderates a national talk show “Expert Opinion,” on Big Ten Network on issues impacting college athletics.  If he retains his position at PSU and as show moderator,  perhaps his next topic should be “How to Protect College Athletes and Community Children from Predatory Coaches.”

Gael O’Brien     November 9, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics MagazineHer latest column is about CEO firings.

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5 Comments on “The Week in Ethics: How PSU’s President Spanier and Coach Paterno Lost the Game”


  1. […] How PSU’s President and Coach Paterno Lost the Game. […]

  2. Eye Floaters Says:

    This is an absolutely inexusible case. No room on the planet for these type of people.


  3. Steve’s tasks are something unbelievable, he created the most powerful brand of all time, he created Technology + Innovation + Art.


  4. The ouster of the man affectionately known as “JoePa” brings to an end one of the most storied coaching careers — not just in college football but in all of sports. Paterno has 409 victories — a record for major college football — won two national titles and guided five teams to unbeaten, untied seasons. He reached 300 wins faster than any other coach.


  5. […] University in 1998 and 2002 regarding the Sandusky child sex abuse incidents, former president Graham Spanier indicated he was not aware that child sex abuse was involved; criminal charges filed against him […]


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