Perhaps the error of Joe Paterno is forgetting his place and losing mission focus. His place was as an employee of the university– no matter how many millions he donates and no matter how much the football program subsidizes other sports on campus. His focus was supposed to be the overall integrity of the university, and his decisions were supposed to support the overall good of the university, even if that meant exposing a good friend who helped win football games.
Now PSU has a stick-in-the-eye reminder that it must truly be in charge. More importantly, the school has been reminded that its first mission is to educate a broad cross section of youth; football is down the priority ladder. The Penn State Board of Trustees made a good first step. Paterno announced Wednesday that he had decided to retire after this season, but the Board then quickly and decisively fired the venerable coach, effective immediately. Administrators were essentially saying: "The coach does not decide how long he is employed. We do."
The university must now refocus on gaining the confidence of the community— the non-football community—that it truly relies upon for its existence. The football program only generates a fraction of the total operating costs of the school. It's foolish to lose sight of several of PSU's academic programs, such as its highly rated aerospace engineering school.
The university has an opportunity to learn that a loss of mission focus from its highest profile representative can be very costly. The sad but appropriate analogy is the situation around Catholic priests in a number of communities: There will likely be civil lawsuits that Penn State will have no choice but to settle. They will not want the discovery process to reveal even more facts. They will not want the school to become Court TV dog meat that the media can chew on endlessly. There are already at least nine separate investigations underway, run by agencies such as the U.S. Office of Education, the U.S. Department of Civil Rights and several law enforcement agencies within the state of Pennsylvania.
Penn State—and other institutions—can learn that strong accountability standards reduce the risk of expensive litigation and that the cost of employing due diligence before coaches are hired and then using fortitude to do the right thing early is far better than covering up mistakes later.
Penn State is a 156-year-old institution and the institutional culture built over that time is stronger than the recent events. I fully expect the school will institute accountability standards as well as bring on psychological profile testing and whatever else it takes to make sure this never happens again on its campus. It is the same lesson learned, albeit on a smaller scale, by certain other big time football programs when their head coaches fell from grace. When I negotiate contracts for coaches the hardest ones are those that deal with universities that have experienced moral gaffes from past employees and learned from the adversity. I fully expect Penn State to do adopt a similar renewed sense of focus.
Roger M. Groves is a Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law, teaching business and sports courses and director of The Center for Sports and Social Entrepreneurship. Visit Roger at http://center4players.com/and follow him at Twitter@rgroveslaw.
More coverage of the Penn State scandal from The Skanner News:
Penn State shaken after Paterno firing
Two PSU administrators face perjury
Opinion: Give recruits more info about their coaches-to-be