“”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton

This week Judge Louis Freeh released the results of his investigation into Penn State’s culpability in Jerry Sandusky‘s unfathomable, despicable, and morally bankrupt abuse of children for a prolonged period of time and the picture that emerges is morally unconscionable, reprehensible, and disgusting for the university, for the football program, and for Joe Paterno.

There’s absolutely no doubt that Jerry Sandusky already proved himself worthy of those verbs many times over, but now after the release of the report, it is evident that so is everyone who else involved in positions of power with Penn State from 1998 to the present. And none more so than Joe Paterno.

I know next to nothing about college football. The fact that I know several coaches’ names is because I watched The Blind Side. But until then, the one name I recognized was Joe Paterno, who was resoundingly lauded for his discipline, principles, and morality with regard to the football program.

It turns out that was all a lie, idolatrous press – probably perpetuated by Paterno himself – that covered up who Joe Paterno really was. Paterno, it turns out, was the person with all the power at Penn State. And while there’s plenty blame to go around among to executive staff there because no one had the character and the guts to stand up to him and do the right thing no matter what, it’s clear that absolute power absolutely corrupted Joe Paterno.

The evidence shows that the only person Joe Paterno cared about was Joe Paterno. Whether he started out that way is open for speculation, but there is no doubt as he accrued power, he became selfish, self-centered, and self-absorbed – a total narcissist. If he ever had any to begin with, he lost all moral conviction, accountability, responsibility, compassion, and empathy.

It would be too simplistic to say it was simply because he didn’t want to lose power. The reality is that power became his idol and that became the driving force in his life. The picture that emerges is of a man who was a bully and a tyrant, a man devoid of care, concern, protectiveness, and love for anyone but himself and his empire.

In many ways, Joe Paterno is no different than Nero, than Hitler, than Stalin, than Pol Pot, than Idi Amin, than “Papa Doc” Duvalier, than any other brutal, malicious, destructive dictator that we can think of. If that sounds like hyperbole, it is not. This absolute corruption is something they all share.

There are calls for the NCAA to ban Penn State’s football program, but in the world of sports – and college sports and college football in particular – it is not uncommon for successful coaches to be given this kind of absolute power. And again and again, we see that it absolutely corrupts. Human lives become unimportant, good values and principles no longer matter, doing the right thing at all times is non-existent. Demagogues emerge and power, success, and money become all that matters and the demagogues will lie, cheat, steal, coerce, threaten, and even tolerate moral and legal wrong-doing to preserve them.

Taylor Branch wrote an article for The Atlantic in November 2011 – before the Sandusky/Penn State story broke – entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” which was a real eye-opener to me about this connection between ascending power, money, and success and the equal declination of principles, values, and care and concern for human beings and their lives. It’s well worth a read.

The Penn State story is a sad and obscene and abominable one, but I can guarantee you that it’s just one in an ever-expanding ocean of many. 

  1. […] discussed in my post on Joe Paterno and Penn State, “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely,” what Joe Paterno and Penn State demonstrated is that he and they lacked integrity. Penn […]


  2. […] as I discussed last year in “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely,” regarding Penn State and which I discuss in detail in one of the components of Building […]


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