What Joe Paterno and Friends Can Teach Us About 'Winning'

I believe that what happened at Penn State runs deep in American culture, and similar breaches will occur until America creates a culture where the value ofis ingrained within education and business.
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"Everyday we choose ourselves."
- Dag Hammarskjöld

Back in November, 2011, right after the Jerry Sandusky abuse story broke and before he was put on trial, I wrote about the "bystander effect" that is present in American culture and obscures moral choices. Now that former FBI Director Louis Freeh's report has been published, we can see just how widespread it was at Penn State.

From the janitors who feared losing their jobs if they dared to report that they actually saw Sandusky having oral sex with a young boy, to the assistant coaches who were aware of Sandusky's abusive actions, to the athletic director, JoePa and Penn State's president who found out in 1998, everyone looked the other way. In the meantime, pedophile Sandusky continued abusing boys with impunity until the incidents were finally revealed last fall.

Why did it take so long? Why did it take 14 years to reveal a crime, the abuse of children, that should have been a no-brainer for anyone with a moral compass to report?

The Freeh Report revealed that people feared for their jobs, and officials feared the implications the reporting of abuse would have on the venerable Nittany Lions football program and the tens of millions of dollars in contributions that Penn State raised annually. The report stated that Penn State created "a culture of secrecy" that permitted looking the other way in the interest of reputation and money.

I believe that what happened at Penn State runs deep in American culture, and similar but maybe less offensive breaches will occur until America creates a culture where the value of doing the right thing is ingrained within education and business.

Jerry Sandusky's was one horrible incident that went unreported because doing the right thing didn't override money, power, prestige and self-interest. But how many bystanders in America's schools fail to report bullying while an estimated one-third of students are bullied? How many bystanders in America's businesses fail to report workplace abuses while at least 30 million American workers are bullied every year?

Part of the reason for the epidemic of indifference that exists is the "bystander effect" that has been reported in literature since the Holocaust. This phenomenon enabled ordinary Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Czechoslovakians who lived near the death camps to smell and sense the effects of the Nazi genocide without doing anything about it.

Those who did act to save lives did so because their values -- especially doing the right thing -- told them to.

My own family survived the Holocaust because five righteous Christian families in Poland collaborated to hide my parents and grandmother, placing them under kitchen floorboards, in a hidden 4' x 6' room in the middle of Warsaw, and in a typhus hospital where the Nazis had previously killed all the patients. When, starting in 1995, I travelled to Poland to meet the one living rescuer and the descendants of the original rescuers, I had the opportunity to ask each of them why they or their parents risked their lives to save Jews. Each in their own way responded that, "It was the right thing to do." They said they had been raised to help other people. Their values became the rally cry that negated an otherwise natural but paralyzing fear.

At Penn State, people were not risking their lives; they were, in their minds, risking money and careers. Yet because their values didn't override the school's culture, they didn't take the risk to stop the abuse.

This same risk exists in all American communities and companies where values are not placed front and center. We saw the same kind of action with the tobacco companies and their now-documented attempts (uncovered during congressional hearings in the 1990s) to coat, sugar and add extra nicotine to cigarettes in order to get more Americans hooked on smoking. The number of lives these companies affected pales Jerry Sandusky's abuses.

In the tobacco cases, the one hero -- amidst thousands of employees who stood by -- was Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the subject of the 1999 Russell Crowe and Al Pacino movie The Insider. Although Jeff, whom I consider to be a friend, is prospering now as the world's leading tobacco cessation expert, he risked everything as a whistleblower. The tobacco companies attacked his integrity, sued him, caused his wife to divorce him and almost bankrupted him. CBS News altered its 60 Minutes episode about Wigand in the interest of appeasing advertisers as opposed to following integrity and decency.

All Americans can learn from the horrible ethical lapses that wreak havoc on children, companies, communities, families and ultimately countries when we sacrifice our values. Need I list more than Enron and certain Wall Street firms that traded off values vs. self-interest to cause economic calamities and spark The Great Recession?

And yet these examples, abuse of children, abusive workplace environments, moral lapses in athletic programs and bullying in schools, will continue unless organizations emphasize values at least alongside of performance, character at least equal to competence, and morals above money.

But this is easier said than done. Ingrained in American culture -- reinforced also by American sports and business -- is another value called success. To get to that end, we're often told to have a "winning attitude" and to "succeed at all costs." Winning is reinforced by incentives, evaluations, quarterly reports and stock prices. Those who win get bonuses, recognition and, sometimes, like with JoePa, statues in their honor.

Unless companies and other organizations drill down the value of doing the right thing as a shared, compelling and overriding habit (not just an option) that counterbalances Success, the hunt and high from going for "the win" will trump courage and conscience.

Dr. Viktor Frankl said it best: "There are two races of mankind, the decent and the indecent." Paterno and friends chose the latter, in part, because the "culture of reverence" for football combined with the desire for "the win" blurred the lines that otherwise might define success as doing the right thing. In today's compromising times, when the lines often are blurred, values can be our guide.

Go to our Facebook Page to tell us about ethical dilemmas where you others chose to do the right thing. How do your values guide you? To see the values that Americans believe in, go to www.Purpleamerica.us.

You can read about the five families that risked their lives to save Stuart Muszynski's family during the Holocaust in his book "Searching for Values: a Grandmother, a Grandson and the Discovery of Goodness" (Hiram College, 1995)

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