About 20 years ago, I met a man who had played for Joe Paterno and he told me a story about how the already legendary coach once explained the importance of character to his players. He asked them, “If you are walking down the sidewalk and you see an old paper cup lying on ground, what do you do? Do you continue on, thinking it’s not your problem, or do you pick it up and throw it away?” The obvious answer was that a person of good character makes the effort to fix the problem. Ironically, the man who told me that story was Dave Joyner, the local orthopedic surgeon who is now the new Athletic Director at Penn State and will be the person who hires Joe’s successor. Not an easy task under any circumstances, but especially now.
If only Joe had followed his own advice and made the effort necessary when faced with the horrible locker room event in 2002. He should have done more. He knows that. We know that. This is not to say he could have single-handedly led the investigation, but a man of his stature could have done more to make sure the incident was not swept under a rug of silence and inaction. And this is not to say that doing so would have been as easy as tossing an old cup in the trash. The issue, of course, is that it was defenseless children that needed help, not a paper cup, and Joe and others didn’t do enough when it mattered the most.
If this had happened in the chemistry department at Penn State, we wouldn’t even be talking about it. It’s a blip on the evening news. The head of the department probably keeps his job and if he doesn’t, no news vans are getting turned over in protest. But instead it happened in the most visible part of the University, the part that actively courts the spotlight, the part that very much wants its fans and even casual observers to equate the excellence of the football program with the excellence of the University itself. And it was also the part with a nationally-respected icon sitting at the very front and center of the program.
If there is a branding lesson to be learned, it may be how dependent the brand of a football program or a university can be on the image of one person. We build up the legend of a coach like JoePa, or even a well-respected university president like Graham Spanier, only to see them fall farther and harder than we ever could have imagined.
A second lesson, however, will be the way that Penn State loyalists move forward from this very human tragedy. Before the week was out, students held a candlelight vigil for the victims of sexual assault. An entire stadium joined the players from both teams in prayers of hope and compassion. As one of the spectators, I can tell you it was so quiet in the stadium that the unamplified voice of one person leading the prayer could be heard throughout. And in the midst of dealing with the grief and bewilderment of the experience, I believe there was also a quiet recognition that Penn State will endure.
We reminded ourselves that the University and the football program are not actually one and the same. That the University is a leading school in many, many disciplines. Ranked the number one university to recruit from by a survey in the Wall Street Journal. Home of Thon, the world’s largest student-run charitable organization, which just last year raised over 9 million dollars for charity. And supported by the world’s largest alumni association with over a half million dues-paying members. And that as painful as it will be, we and the University will take responsibility for actions of the few who failed to protect those children. We will accept the shame. We will ensure that it doesn’t happen again. And our pride in Penn State will remain strong, however much more humble than it was before. These events have triggered an outpouring of emotion that has us realizing just how strongly our own self-image is connected to that of the Penn State University brand.
Slowly, and painfully, we will move forward. The sordid details and legal wrangling will likely bring continual reminders of this tragedy. But Penn State loyalists have circled the wagons. A handwritten sign in the parking lot after the game read, “We are still Penn State.” And JoePa is still in many ways a beloved figure. But neither he, nor the University, nor any of us will ever be the same again.