Joe Paterno Fired: Timing of His Departure Both Right and Wrong

Alan BlackAnalyst IIINovember 11, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Joe Paterno talks with the media following thier 27-11 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide at Beaver Stadium on September 10, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Joe Paterno's tenure as head football coach at Penn State ended on a sour note, as he was fired Wednesday.

Paterno had earlier in the day revealed that he would be stepping down at the end of the season, and said that there was no need to fire him since he would be leaving of his own free will. 

The board of trustees decided that JoePa's tenure shouldn't last until the end of the season, and fired him effective immediately.

So who was in the right on this matter; JoePa or the board of trustees?  The unsatisfying answer is that both were right, and both were wrong. 

There was no clear-cut correct decision here.  It was clear that JoePa's reign at Penn State needed to come to an end soon.  It's just not clear whether that end needed to be immediately or if it should have occurred after the season ended.

Let's take a closer look at each of those perspectives.  Before doing so, I wish to make it perfectly clear that this analysis of the situation is in no way meant to defend the actions of those who failed to protect the rights of children in this case, and whose inaction led to multiple innocent lives being irreversibly damaged.  This is meant as an examination of the issue of whether or not it was the correct decision to fire Paterno immediately rather than let him retire after the season ended.

Why he needed to be fired now

Let's not sugar-coat this.  Joe Paterno knew that there was reason to believe that children were being raped, molested and assaulted by a longtime friend. 

Paterno brought that information to his "boss" (in all honesty, Paterno was the most powerful man in the city, which makes his inaction all the more disturbing).  JoePa then did nothing more, and never got the police involved. 

Even as his "bosses" remained inactive on the situation, Paterno simply did nothing.  That inaction allowed the assaults, rapes and molestations to continue, and more innocent lives were damaged as a result.

Any person who allows such atrocities to occur without doing everything in their power to put an end to them is severely lacking in moral judgment.  Part of Paterno's job is to be in charge of supervising the growth and maturation of those players entrusted to his care.  Didn't he just prove himself unfit to fulfill those responsibilities by demonstrating the lack of moral judgment mentioned above?

Besides, Paterno wasn't "owed" the privilege of being able to retire on his own terms.  Yes, the man has influenced countless lives for the better over the course of his career, but those successes don't make up for his role in allowing Sandusky's continued violation of children.  The only ones "owed" anything in this case are those children whom Paterno could have saved from their own personal hells, but didn't.

Why he should have been allowed to retire after the season ended

As horrific as Sandusky's actions are, JoePa was not a part of those atrocities.  He didn't encourage them or participate in them, and he reported them to his boss.  Paterno isn't guilty of any crime or even any NCAA rules violation. 

His offense was moral in nature, and since there is no standardized universal moral code, it may be unjust to hold Paterno to a higher standard.  Was Paterno only fired in order to appease a sense of moral outrage and take scrutiny off the university?  If that's the case, that is an unacceptable reason for firing him.

Besides, removing Paterno from his position right now deprives his entire team of their coach and mentor just as their world is turned upside down.  How is this fair to the members of the Penn State football team who are now left alone to navigate this turmoil by themselves?  They have done nothing wrong, so why do they also have to suffer?

It also doesn't help matters that the witness to the horrific incident in 2002 is still on the Penn State staff.  Mike McQueary is the one who actually witnessed the incident, while JoePa only heard about it from McQueary. 

Paterno didn't know if the allegation was true or not, while McQueary knew for a fact that the atrocity had occurred.  McQueary was the first line of defense and responsibility, and he failed.  So why did Paterno get fired first if McQueary had the much larger moral obligation to go to the police?

The fact that McQueary wasn't canned before Paterno lends pretty strong support to the argument that Paterno's firing was merely meant to satisfy an outraged nation, and wasn't justified.

In the end, Joe Paterno's firing is just like the rest of this scandal; unpleasant, unclear and leaving the public feeling morally confused.