By Peter Block
On November 9, Joe Paterno, legendary football coach of Penn State, got fired. His boss, the president of Penn State, also got fired. The reason they got fired was that eleven years ago, when they were told that their well-known defensive coach was allegedly caught molesting a child, they did nothing of consequence about it.
Beyond the tragic nature of the story is our response to the story and what meaning we give to it. Each of us has a lens to view this kind of incident:
- You can call it a lack of individual morality. Five people in responsible positions knew of the crimes, covered them up, and refused to take enough corrective action. You can then riff on how our modern culture is big on celebrity, short on integrity, lacking moral fiber. Valid point, one lens.
- Or, you can see it as a system failure. You can consider it as one more example of how our institutions are constructed to hide their faults, avoid public embarrassment, and protect their brand by dealing with deviant behavior in private, like moving the defensive coach to the side. Whether it's Enron, Lehman Brothers, or Penn State, we see system failure as a failure in institutional leadership and so we think we need stronger rules, higher standards, and the will to enforce them. The fact we have more people in jail than countries with four times our population is a result of this kind of institutional, no-tolerance, enforce-the-rules lens.
- The third lens is the community and cultural lens. This is my point. We as a modern culture create the conditions where Paterno and too many of our leaders can put themselves above the interests of the community and rule like Pharaoh, acting on their own private sense of what is legal and moral. Why can they do this? Why do we allow this to occur? Because they are winners. They are cultural heroes. We worship competition. We take our identity from competing and being first. Paterno became JoePa, the father, the Godfather, the patriarch who won football games. He grew the Penn State program. The stadium held 46,000 people when he arrived, it now holds more than 100,000 people.
Our participation in a tragedy like this comes from our choice to take our identity from winning. Sports is where the choice is the easiest to see. As a nation, we want to be number one. And stay number one. Failure is not an option. We rank-order everything we are interested in. Restaurants, children, cities, hospitals, schools. We worship the private sector because we have bought the economist's myth that competition produces results, which is mostly not true. This is the argument for charter schools, which proves to be dead wrong. This is the argument for privatizing health care, which proves to have driven costs through the ceiling. We now think our youth are in competition with China's for excellence in math and science. We think every city has too many social service agencies and they suffer from lack of competition.
There is a cost to all this competition that in the imperial culture of the U.S. gets too little attention. Today's obvious cost is that good people do bad things and get away with it for too long. JoePa at Penn State. Bernie Madoff in finance. The bigger cost is that we marginalize the commons and devalue collaboration. Anyone who argues for the common good is called a Socialist or Communist. Half the people running for elected office attack the government for caring for what is in the common interest.
We turn our children into performers as soon as they enter school. What once was joyful play and learning now becomes a race. We call cooperation in school "cheating." We even have the nerve to celebrate the competition and name our national educational policy "The Race to the Top." Who is racing? Why would we want to brand the majority of our next generation "losers"?
The myth is that competition creates winners, when, in fact, it mostly creates losers. Even those we think of as winners are caught in the vise. What we can do to keep Joe Paterno from placing himself above the law and above the institutional interest (he refused to retire when asked two years ago, and got away with it)? Stop seeing the world as a competitive event. Stop creating heroes for the wrong reason. Stop going to football games in such numbers. Sports are fine, but it's just sports. Every community has many more things to be proud of than a young person's ability to run, jump, throw, and catch. Sport does not build character, it puts character at risk. Sport is just fun.
My recommendation to Penn State: Return the stadium to 46,000 seats. And then let's stay home for a few games and return to a sense of communal reason and proportion.