Politics and Whatnot

Just another liberal political blog

A defense of Joe Paterno (that I won’t back down from)

I’ve argued political topics for a long time.  I’ve defended Obama to Republicans, the Afghanistan War to liberals, Palestinians to Israelis and vice versa.  As contentious as those topics are, nothing ever evokes anything close to the unanimous orgy of hatred that arises when I say anything even slightly in defense someone accused of any sort of wrongdoing that involves both 1. sex, and 2. children.  One of those, and it’s easy to find defenders, but both and it’s impossible. For example, I remember not too long ago I had pointed out in an argument, as one of many examples of the irrational fears played up by the media, that child neglect causes orders of magnitude more deaths than child sex abuse.  Immediately, the conversation shifted to claims that I must be a pedophile myself for even entertaining the thought that there are larger issues than child sex abuse.

And that brings us to this – well, what really should be a non-story.  Some sex scandal tangentially involving a prominent college football coach.  Having read about what exactly is causing all the outrage at Paterno, I thought – can’t somebody defend this guy?  A google search could find only one person – a Mr. Kutcher, that attempted a defense of Paterno, but apparently failed.

My first thought upon reading this was, if the feared Ashton Kutcher must flee in disgrace after defending Joe Paterno, what chance do I have?  And I’m a strange choice for defender too – I didn’t go to Penn State, and I don’t even follow college football.  And Paterno’s supposedly a conservative Republican politically, and I’m about as liberal as they come.  Why should I defend him?

Looking at the overwhelming assault on both Paterno and his supporters by the media and the online comment horde, the answer is obvious – because someone has to.  Yes, I am going to defend current scum-of-the-earth-by-popular-vote, Joe Paterno.

So, I present you with the following thought experiment:

1. Imagine for a moment that you are a doctor at hospital.  You’ve worked at the hospital for a long time, and you can hardly remember working anywhere else.  You used to work with one doctor, who you got to be pretty good friends with, we’ll call him Stu.  Stu has since left your department and works in the maternity ward, out of your supervision.

2. Now imagine that a medical student doing clinical work in the maternity ward, well call him Mark, tells you that he’s seen Stu pick up a newborn baby out of it’s bed and punt it.  Just straight up picked it up and punted it across the maternity ward.

3. You think for a moment, gee, that seems odd.  Doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that Stu would do.  And you wonder why is Mark telling you this instead of calling the police himself?  At the very least, he could tell Stu’s boss, Carl.  You might even think – and this is terrible, but you can’t keep the thought from entering your mind – that the child’s parents would notice the various bruises on their baby and report it themselves. And what if Stu didn’t do it?  What if Mark – somehow –  thought he saw something he didn’t?  What if Mark’s nuts?  What happens if you make this accusation over something that turns out to be untrue?  How embarrassing would it be to falsely accuse a doctor of kicking a baby across a room?

4.  Meanwhile, there’s work to be done – more patients are coming in, and you have to figure out what, if anything to do with what you just heard from Mark.  So, do you:

  • A) Decide it’s a good idea not to get involved, pretend you heard nothing, and go about your own business,
  • B) Tell Stu’s boss Carl about what you heard from Mark, or
  • C) Call the police and tell them that you heard about, but did not see, a doctor kicking a baby across a maternity ward.

Well if you chose anything other than (C), you deserve to be fired, as almost everyone seems to agree.  After all, why are you so in favor of kicking babies around hospitals?  Maybe you’re a baby-kicker yourself!  I hope you get kicked across a maternity ward…(yes, someone did actually wish for my ass rape because I defended Joe Paterno in a forum).

As we know, Paterno chose (B).  He did what was done unto him, and passed it on to someone else.  But stop trying to change the subject – we’re not talking about Paterno, we’re talking about you, baby-kicker-sympathizer.  Because what studies show is that even (B) is too good for you.  If you’re an average person, you’re overwhelmingly likely to choose (A).  How do we know this?  Any psychology major could tell you: the bystander effect, most famously displayed during the Murder of Kitty Genovese, where several witnesses in New York City watched a young woman get stabbed to death and raped, apparently without calling the police or taking any other action for half an hour. There are many, many more examples of the same thing, and each gets reported with the same outrage at the bystanders, and quickly forgotten. But the demonstrated fact remains the same – when faced with a horrible event that would require you to take an action to stop it, you’re very unlikely to take that action.  Instead, you are most likely to say, “Why should I get myself involved in this?” and pretend you have seen – or heard about – nothing.  Almost certainly, your (honest) answer to the hypothetical is (A).  It’s definitely the practical one – the easiest choice, and the one that’s least likely to get you into trouble.

But if you were Joe Paterno, your answer is the far more admirable (B), which should have caused further investigation by Penn State (even if it didn’t).  Had Paterno chosen (A) like you would have, his role probably would have never come to light and he could have feigned ignorance.  Instead, he reported it, and created a record that would later be used against him.   If only we could all be as righteous as Joe Paterno.


17 responses to “A defense of Joe Paterno (that I won’t back down from)

  1. Pingback: Over 800 hits yesterday « Politics and Whatnot

  2. Anonymous November 12, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Using your hypothetical, what if he picked another choice?
    4. Meanwhile, there’s work to be done – more patients are coming in, and you have to figure out what, if anything to do with what you just heard from Mark. So, do you:

    A) Decide it’s a good idea not to get involved, pretend you heard nothing, and go about your own business,
    B) Tell Stu’s boss Carl about what you heard from Mark, or
    C) Call the police and tell them that you heard about, but did not see, a doctor kicking a baby across a maternity ward.
    D) Tell Stu’s boss Carl that you heard Stu may have been unprofessional with a patient
    E) Tell Stu’s boss Carl and agree to deal with it in-house. After all, the hospital’s reputation is on the line if this is made public. Not to mention exposure to lawsuits. There were rumors swirling about Stu’s temper for the past few years.
    F) …

    The problem with a hypothetical is that there may be some hidden detail that completely changes the outcome. I give Paterno the benefit of the doubt, but I completely understand why the trustees cleaned house.

    • Polnwhat November 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm

      Well if you tell Carl to deal with this in house, that’s definitely bad. But at this stage we have no reason to believe that Paterno did any such thing, so the calls to fire him over something we have no reason to believe is true would be inappropriate. I think in general, it’s best to assume that people act reasonably unless there is good reason to think otherwise.

      • Anonymous November 13, 2011 at 11:19 am

        Wait I thought people reacted in way to mind their own business??

  3. Scott DeCarlo November 11, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    Please ignore the gramatical and spelling errors.

  4. Scott DeCarlo November 11, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    I also used a hypothetical example about this subject. Imagine a teacher who advises a student lead club. Imagine a student reveals that s/he is is the victim of ongoing abuse. Imagine that teacher informing the student’s counselor and the school administrator.Imagine the school doing his job and by contacting the police and OCY. Does it become the job of the teacher to follow up with the administration and the police and Social Services to make sure they all are doing their job?
    Seems to me when you follow protocol and report abuses to other professionals, a person should feel confident that, said professionals, will fulfill their responsibilities.
    I cannot imagine anyones aying the teacher is at fault if the abuse continues.

  5. Rick Collins November 11, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Admirably spoken fellow liberal.

  6. Anonymous November 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    The Kitty Genovese thing has been pretty thoroughly debunked. I’m not disputing the bystander effect, but the Genovese case was way overblown.

    • Polnwhat November 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm

      The initial reports were exaggerated, but “debunked” is rather strong. Clearly there were witnesses who were able to report all the details of what happened but didn’t take any action to stop it.

  7. Anonymous November 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Imagine making up inane hypotheticals to support my position in a hope of increasing visits to my blog. Your desire to use some psychology ideas googled off the web are a bit of a stretch as well.

    How about just adding this to your hypotheicals — Imagine you are the most powerful person at that hospital. And its not punting children, its sodomizing them — ya know the bruises are internal and not as noticeable especially in the case of a child that might have no parents or foster parents. You also know this individual is the front for a child adoption/aid agency.

    So you hear about this supposed incident in your bathroom.

    So you

    a) Notify the hospital administrator and never think about it again. Politely nod and ignore the potential sodomizer every time you see him — ya know because you suffer from 10 years extended version of bystander effect.
    b) Notify the hospital administrator and then ask wtf next time you see the sodomizer wandering in the children center.
    c) Notify the hospital administrator and confront the individual right then. This would include finding out what happened to the child. Ya know because doctors actually have this oath thingy about patients.

    You want to use the bystander effect for McQueary for the initial incident…. okay. How about every time he sees the individual after that during the next 10 years. When you find a psychological excuse for that, the defense lawyers may want to call you to the stand.

    • Polnwhat November 11, 2011 at 7:15 pm

      To answer the question, I’d like to think that I personally would choose (C), but studies show that I’m most likely in reality to choose (A) or (B). Like that link the guy above you posted – people don’t go out of their way to help children they don’t know.

      But I think your main point is what happens after the initial reporting. That’s something I admittedly didn’t consider, but it still doesn’t change my opinion. I’ll add to the hypothetical:

      5. The next day, you see Stu, who greets you. Of course, Stu has no idea that Mark told you he saw Stu punting a baby. So if you say anything to Stu, he’s going to know that you know, and possibly that Mark knows too. Moreover, you can pretty much guess that whether he actually punted the baby or not, he’s going to deny it. Because no person ever admits to punting a baby. And is there really a right way to broach this topic? “So…somebody told me you punted a baby last night”. Maybe if you’re creative, “I was walking by your ward and I heard quite a bit of crying over there, what was that all about?” However you ask it, you know he’ll deny it. So do you:
      A) Not mention it, try to avoid Stu as much as possible, not do anything to make the situation worse or let Stu know that Mark has accused him of anything.
      B) Ask him, already knowing that he’s going to deny it whether he did it or not (i.e. useless).

      6. So you somehow choose (B), and of course Stu says it’s the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard and denies that he’s ever punted a baby. What now?
      A) Figure you gave it your best shot, it’s up to Carl to deal with it now.
      B) Call the police, tell them you “Hey, I’m Joe Paterno (assuming your name’s Joe Paterno). I know this guy Stu, and some other guy told me he saw Stu punting a baby. I asked Stu but he says it didn’t happen. That’s all.”

      You might choose both (B)s, but really, that’s a superhuman effort. People like to mind their own business, even when they really shouldn’t. It’s way easier than the alternative.

      • Anonymous November 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm

        That’s the problem with arguing hypotheticals — they never cover the real issue.

        But, you may want to reconsider your last statement “People like to mind their own business, even when they really shouldn’t” You might want to read up on Joe Paterno and what he represented to PSU and others.

        The man was — well still is — an icon in the coaching world. A mentor, teacher, moral compass…. for thousands of young men and women.

        Even accepting your overly cynical view of society — glad I don’t live in your town — people expect more from someone like Joe Pa than “minding his [own] business.” Frankly — that last statement alone is justification to fire a leader, teacher and mentor of young men. I doubt if any PSU grad would feel comfortable with a leader that wants to mind his own business.

        One last point — i’m guessing you don’t have children with that philosophy. Even McQueary’s dad whom I blame for not telling his son to go back and find that kid while I call the cops (again the bystander philosophy doesn’t cover his reaction) at least told him to tell Joe.

        • Polnwhat November 11, 2011 at 9:40 pm

          On the contrary, the great thing about hypotheticals is that they allow the extraction of the real issue, once all the prejudice-causing elements are wiped away. I didn’t include child rape in the hypothetical because it involves a certain requirement of moral outrage (where you may otherwise come across as insensitive to rape victims) that is absent in baby-punting. Without that element, it looks a bit different.

          To the extent that you argue that Penn State will not accept a coach that does not live up to Paterno’s icon status, that would be a sufficient justification if it were the true reason. But I think it’s fairly clear that Paterno was fired because of pressure from the media and the angry masses who saw his inactions as particularly monstrous and inexplicable. If you’re saying he’s merely human, I think we’re in agreement.

          • Anonymous November 13, 2011 at 11:18 am

            On the contrary, your hypotheticals allow you to ignore the facts presented in this case to be replaced by — “well what if this happened….” Wouldn’t you treat Joe differently? Many of us that have read the grand jury report and subsequent statements from Joe Pa — wonder how the revered coach of “victory with honor” can be so out of touch to state something like “ya know I should have done more, but y’all don’t need to bother yourself with me anymore. I’m just gonna finish the season out…. nothing to see here.”

            Interesting that you are willing to impune the trustees’ action based on a result of something “monstrous.” I don’t think there is any doubt they reacted to the media and outrage from their own alumnus. But please, Sandusky is the monster here — the blame on the rest is inaction for at least a period of 10 years. Instead of using some bs psychological bystander theory as an excuse for years of inaction — or worse ya know just preventing the “baby punter” from the birthing room so he won’t partake in any more “horseplay.” Hindsight may perhaps allow Joe to use a different term to define said “baby punting.” They did the right thing — they won’t allow this type of inaction at PSU anymore.

            So Joe wasn’t fired because he was human. He was fired because he failed to live up the ideals he himself set out for his team, and for failing to live up the ideals set up by PSU for one of their leaders. People should expect more from someone in that position. Maybe you should read some of you blogs about politicians and wonder why you expect more from them…. Same hypothetical theory applies here. He’s a leader and is expected to do more in a case like this — that is why he was fired. Your inability to see that is just as knee-jerk as those that would call Joe a monster.

            • Polnwhat November 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm

              If Paterno was fired for failing to live up to the ideals he set up for his team, what are these ideals? Did Paterno get rid of players at the first sign of off-the-field wrongdoing? No, instead Paterno defended his players in when the media went after them for their legal problems.

              And when people talk about Paterno, the first thing they mention is how he stayed at Penn State despite offers from the NFL. In other words, his #1 quality, the thing that makes Paterno special other than his coaching ability, is his loyalty to Penn State. It seems to me like when someone shows that much loyalty, you show him a little loyalty in return, not get rid of him when he makes a mistake that just about anyone would have made.

          • Anonymous November 13, 2011 at 12:05 pm

            Actually the response from this PSU alumnus states it best.

  8. Anonymous November 11, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    As further support for the bystander effect, I offer the recent case in China:


    Paterno did what he could.

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