What I’m Learning from the Penn State Scandal

I am a Penn State fan so I’ve been watching with interest as the scandal surrounding the incredibly abhorrent, mind numbingly predatory behavior of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has unfolded. I always admired the way Joe Paterno pushed academics to the point that his program generated the highest graduation rate among the big time schools while at the same time remaining competitive at that elite level. I was intrigued when he was pushing for freshman to be ineligible to play so they could adjust to college academics, and I remember when he was campaigning to reduce the number of scholarships available to division one programs as a way to keep academics the main thing. He lost all those battles and its a bit ironic that the scandal that erupted around a former assistant has yielded as punishment at least part of what he thought should have been common practice.

I’ve also been watching how others react now that the Freeh Report has been released. The reaction has been swift and decisive, even as errors in the report are corrected and new perceptions are being formed.
I was particularly interested in the NCAA’s reaction because up until this point they have not intervened in this type of case in member schools. It was known that the NCAA was working on changing it’s arduously slow procedural culture and this provided an opportunity to demonstrate they could move swiftly and decisively. It would be unusual for a large representative organization to both reform their process and enter previously uncharted territory in one fell swoop, but the NCAA achieved that in responding to the Penn State scandal. I perceived, perhaps incorrectly because I’m a fan, a great deal of self righteous hypocrisy on the part of the executive committee of the NCAA as they spoke eloquently of the need to return academics to the forefront of the college athletic experience while penalizing the school that had achieved that better than any of them.
I’ve also been deeply disappointed in the leadership at Penn State. When you’re a part of something that you feel passionately about, and that thing is so much bigger than yourself it is easy to think that it is bigger and more important than everything. We tell our staff at ebc that confidentiality is crucial in our world. We go to great lengths to make sure that private information from those we work with stays private. But there is one exception. When someone shares allegations of abuse, or confesses abuse, we engage the authorities immediately. Somewhere in the midst of the “protect one another” culture of Penn State football some horrific judgments were made that have now sunk the ship.
With all of this bouncing around in my mind there are a couple of learnings that I’ve jotted in my journal:
  • I’m scared by the fact that I too have the same leadership potential as the leaders at Penn State to make an incredibly misguided decision. I believe in our mission and I think it is bigger than any person or group of people. Heck, I think it’s eternal. I’m afraid that in the moment of crises I have the potential to entertain a decision that would keep the mission going while justifying my action as for the greater good. I hope if that ever happens, the leaders around me will see more clearly and call me to account (and sanity) and repentance.
  • Integrity demands that my public image and my private behavior match. History is still out on how Joe Paterno will be remembered but one thing is sure; at one point there was a conversation between he and another leader where he was understood to endorse or even encourage handing the Sandusky problem internally. It’s humbling to me to think that a whole lifetime of work, regardless of how successful or full of integrity, could eventually be boiled down my worst decision. I’ve told my boys a thousand times; “Just do the right thing, every time, and people’s perceptions will take care of themselves.” There was at least one time in those hallowed football halls at Penn State when doing the right thing became subservient to preserving the reputation of the institution and that one time has become the defining aspect of the program. Numbers 32 gives us a sobering reminder when it says that our sin will eventually find us out. I’m so grateful for the Holy Spirit who leads me to repentance and confession before my sin causes my world to implode around me.
  • Emotion is a poor stimulus for good decision making. My life isn’t going to change at all because of the Penn State sanctions. I watched them play a few times a year and I enjoyed the games. But, I also enjoy watching Bloomsburg University which is a great division II school that plays only 10 miles from my house. I didn’t define anything about me around Penn State football. However the emotionally charged reactions of the NCAA and others are making a horrible situation far worse. By varying degrees the NCAA created thousands of additional victims to this horrible situation. The problem is that creating new victims provides no justice or healing to the real victims. There is a legal process in full swing that will punish the wrong doers and that will be done in a way that minimizes the collateral damage and serves the victims. It’s utter folly to argue that the dismantling of one large football program (by those who competed against it) will serve to change the others. It is more likely that the NCAA was managing its own image by acting quickly, severely and decisively. Isn’t image management what started this whole thing to begin with?
  • At the end of the day there is no excuse or substitute for leaders of organizations not to be intentional about transparency and accountability to selected folks from outside of their organizations. As a leader, I don’t need understanding as much as I need truth. It’s too easy to slip into group think. It’s too easy to justify insular thinking. Every leader needs a regular check up with those who will think beyond the emotion and passion of the issues to make sure their thinking is solid.

Our mission is singular; to help people meet God for life. My prayer is that God will continue to protect us from ourselves as we navigate the messiness of every day issues for his glory. I’m tempted to manage my image all to frequently. My prayer for myself this morning is that I will live out what we say so often around ebc…. we can either impress people with Christ in us; or we can try to impress them with us…. but we can’t do both. I want to do the former.

Galatians 2:20: My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

About Scott Fetterolf

I'm the Lead Pastor of Emmanuel Bible Chapel and married to my best bud, Brenda, for 28 years. We have three grown sons and I use this space to write about life, faith, and the lost art of manhood. Thanks for reading, I will read every comment and respond to every comment I can.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What I’m Learning from the Penn State Scandal

  1. roberta says:

    What we live is much more important than what we say- we can build ourselves up to look really great but…….
    If we belong to Christ then our lives will show that we walk in Truth.

  2. @chuckemt says:

    Thank you. Well said and spot on! Funny, I blogged about nearly the same subject this week (minus the Penn State reference)…..I’d say God has an all-around message for all of us!

  3. John Howard says:

    Scott, sorry my mistake…I thought you were an alumnus when we worked together in Danville. This situation can be seen repeated over and over and over with the many scandals in the RC Church. That was why I left the priesthood in 1980 when I could not get our Bishop to have any semblance of honesty of disclosure with my brother priests. Your perspective is honest and scriptural, which is where all decisions in our life MUST be based upon. Good work brother, and please keep this perspective. St. Augustine said it well when he said…we must preach the Word of God always, and if we must then we should use words. By our fruits we will be known as whether we serve God or Mammal. Love you brother!

  4. You are gracious as usual, John…. I miss you! Trust you’re doing well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>