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Ethical lesson of Penn State scandal

By Edward Queen, Special to CNN
updated 3:11 PM EST, Thu November 10, 2011
Under head coach Joe Paterno, Penn State football has boasted a reputation for athletic and academic success and integrity.
Under head coach Joe Paterno, Penn State football has boasted a reputation for athletic and academic success and integrity.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Queen: Penn State has betrayed its athletics motto, "Success with Honor'
  • Failing to report alleged crimes has befouled an illustrious program, he says
  • He says those who don't report wrongdoing bear part of the guilt
  • Queen: Desire to preserve institutions or make more money corrupts many

Editor's note: Edward Queen directs the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership at Emory University's Center for Ethics in Atlanta.

(CNN) -- "Success with Honor." So proclaims the motto of Penn State University's athletics program.

For years that seemed to be the case. Under the tutelage of Coach Joe Paterno, the football program has never been sanctioned by the NCAA for a major violation and boasts one of the highest graduation percentages for athletes in Division I-A football. But just as a major program is only as good as its last win, so is one's honor, one's ethical status.

The recent charges of sexual abuse of boys by a former Penn State assistant football coach and the seeming years-long cover-up by university officials has befouled an illustrious program and the school's honor.

For those of us who have been influenced deeply by Joe Paterno's football career as proof that an ethical program can indeed be run in high-power college football, the visceral and immediate response is that of the child to Shoeless Joe Jackson after the breaking of the "Black Sox" scandal in baseball, "Say it ain't so, Joe." But alas, it appears to be so.

Edward Queen
Edward Queen

Rather, however, than bemoan the decline in college sports, a topic upon which one could write for weeks, I am more concerned about what lessons we can learn from this experience and how it fits within a wide and, seemingly, growing culture committed to prostrating itself before the idol of monetary success.

From banking scandals to Wall Street, elementary schools to universities, the scramble to succeed in dollar terms, to bring in ever more money has led individuals and organizations to ignore visible, powerful, and pressing evidence of malfeasance. Money and power buy impunity, or at least rent it.

The Catholic Church, News Corporation, Citigroup, and now Penn State deserve the opprobrium that has been, and should be, heaped upon them for looking away, feigning ignorance, or covering-up the frauds, the abuses, the criminality.

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When we place our loyalty, our commitment, in the service of individuals, organizations, or money we already have started down the path of corruption. Such misplaced loyalty, whether to a colleague in a hospital, a comrade in battle, or a stock trader on the floor, can only lead to error, wrongdoing, and evil.

In appearing to place success above honor, the administration of Penn State University has aided a sexual predator and ruined numerous lives. In their loyalty to the university's good name, they failed in their loyalty, nay their duty, to the victims and to society as a whole. For this they should be wholeheartedly condemned and punished. The firing of Coach Paterno and university president, Graham Spanier, are clearly the right steps in that direction.

For the rest of us, we need also to look inward. As fans, investors, administrators and co-workers, how have we furthered this reality? Do we really desire the NCAA to clamp down on abuses, even if it is our team?

As surgeons, do we report the incompetent or drunken medical colleague?

As individuals whose wealth increases, do we really care about the nature of the stock trades or the processes? How we answer those questions determines the nature of our society.

Let us honor the coach who reports boosters slipping money to players, the co-worker who reports malfeasance, and the soldier who decries abuse and illegal orders. For if we do not, we ourselves must bear the guilt.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Queen.

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