The story of Joe Paterno is a modern American tragedy. He was a man respected and admired by thousands. Players who entered his system left the program as better men for knowing Paterno. Everything changed in early November when accusations of sexual assault were made against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
William A. Levinson recently wrote about the Penn State Public Relations Catastrophe, and it’s worth a read for anyone who condemns Joe Paterno, or thinks of him as anything less than a valuable role model for his players. Levinson concludes that the Penn State Board of Trustees made the fatal backward step by turning the Jerry Sandusky scandal into the Penn State scandal. They fired a legendary coach of 61 years, and forced the resignation of President Spanier.
What could the Board of Trustees have done differently? There was public outrage at the accusations, and no one could have expected JoePa to take the field against Nebraska in the following week. A suspension of Paterno would have been most fitting. After all, he was fired simply due to accusations. Nothing had been proven or settled in court, but his reputation was dragged through the mud. As for President Spanier, they could have stayed with their known leader through the crisis. Wholesale change brought excessive attention and, as Levinson said, turned the Jerry Sandusky scandal into the Penn State Scandal.
Joe Paterno passed away on Januarry 22 of this year. He was a living legend until two months before his passing when he was stripped of everything. The Board of Trustees acted in the interest of the University, but they tarnished the University’s reputation as well. They needed to act. This serves as a lesson in PR for all practitioners in crisis communication. When action is needed, it needs to be the right action. One wrong move can ruin your institutions reputation and create an unnecessary secondary scandal.