On Joe Paterno and Leadership: Kill the Myth
Stephen Arnoff is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class XXII, and the Executive Director of the 14th Street Y in New York City. He blogs at http://talkinhavanagilahblues.blogspot.com/.
I am a big football fan, not only because I enjoy watching and understanding the game, but because at some of the most formative moments of my life, I lived the game. I played on tremendous teams throughout high school. We were state runners-up my senior year, losing to hated Columbus Academy in the old Horseshoe at Ohio State Stadium in the final game of a team lead by veterans that had only lost one regular season contest during three years as starters – stolen by the evil refs, of course. I played that game with a dislocated elbow in a giant cushioned cast.
For quite a few years after graduation I enjoyed scanning the papers for the names of college players I had come up against myself in high school. This extended my youth even as I wandered into landscapes far more complicated than the clearly marked fields and obvious assignments of the fast-pulling guard I had been at seventeen.
One of my teammates, O.J. McDuffie, went on to play professionally for the Miami Dolphins for ten years. This extended my football youth even deeper into adulthood at a time when American sports were otherwise far from my mind. And yet, especially when visiting my hometown, I followed the career of O.J., the friend I had thrown my body around for all those many years before. (Indeed, it’s a little known but essential crossroads of football history that before I was converted from quarterback to guard after my sophomore year, I had thrown O.J. his first pass as a Hawk in practice. He outran my best toss by about twenty yards.)
But before the pros, as announced at a press conference in the library of our high school after a year of visits on our campus by the head coaches of Notre Dame and Ohio State and Michigan and on and on and on, O.J. became a Penn State Nittany Lion, where he was both an All-American and generous to us has-beens with complimentary tickets to games and war stories.
At the time of his decision, some of us were a little disappointed. Though our team was a tight knit bunch used to long bus rides together across the state to small towns hoping to eat us alive and even longer days of sacrifice and practice in heat, rain, and snow, O.J. did not share his decision until the public announcement.
Some were surprised by his choice. It felt like a rather staid move for the exciting next stage in the arc of what we knew would be a stellar career. Penn State wore then as now those boring blue and white uniforms and its offense lacked flair. It prided itself on a typically Midwestern working-class defense that ground down opponents over the exertion of a hard knocks game. Still, other factors led O.J. to Happy Valley. For one thing, he knew that his mother would be able to drive to most of his games. A previous star from our school had also played there. But above all else, I suspect, like so many other winners, O.J. wanted to play for the great Coach Joe Paterno.
Anyone involved with college football inside or out knows the Paterno myth: rising up from immigrant Brooklyn to an interest in both football and literature at Brown; arriving at Penn State in the Truman years and head coaching there from 1966 until today. He becomes the winningest coach in Division I college football history and invests large amounts of time and money in the intellectual life of the campus, too. He models leadership of moral character and well-rounded achievement for “his boys,” exemplars that the phrase “student-athlete” actually means something balanced and real in a realm where most universities criminally drain the talent of large numbers of players left to sputter and fail in other areas of college life and the life beyond it.
Today Joe Paterno has announced that he will retire at the end of the season after forty-five years as head football coach. In the words of CNN, “the resignation comes after a child sex abuse scandal in which one of Paterno’s former top assistants, Jerry Sandusky, has been charged with seven counts of ‘involuntary deviant sexual intercourse.’ Sandusky is accused of forcibly sodomizing young boys. One of those cases allegedly occurred in the shower of the Penn State locker room. A graduate assistant reported that incident to Paterno, who alerted the school’s athletic director but did not talk to criminal authorities. Paterno has not been charged in the case, but he faced widespread calls to resign for not fulfilling his moral responsibility.”
With all of the abhorrence I feel for the cover-up and hypocrisy it entails, all of the despair and sympathy I feel for those children and their families, and all of the love and commitment I have for what I know sports and education and camaraderie can do for young people when done right, my leadership moment or learning is prosaic and simple.
As leaders, we must kill any myth of stature or remnant of ego or desire for personal accomplishment when any wisp or shadow of abuse of these gifts enters the spaces we manage. We serve, but when we are good at our service thanks to powerful vision and practice, the institutions and people inhabiting them can somehow come to serve us. In many small ways, such imbalance harms our work and pollutes our mandate. In a case such as this one, the result of selfish leadership is a contagion that spreads to cripple and kill not only the institution which seemingly only deigns to serve its leaders rather than its charges, but also, so tragically, steals the souls of the people it is meant to serve.