In the last post, I explained how, the administration of Michigan State University in 2014 did not learn the lessons of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State just a few years earlier. This sin explains Michigan State’s decisions: Idolatry. As I shared in my last blog post, they fell into corporate idolatry, and as a result dozens of additional girls were sexually abused because they allowed Larry Nassar to continue to see patients after Amanda Thomashow reported that he rubbed her breasts and vagina during a medical exam.
Here is an excerpt from my book “Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked” that explains what went wrong at Penn State, which serves as an example of what probably went wrong at Michigan State. We don’t have all the info yet, but when we do I suspect we’ll see similar dynamics. As background, Corporate idolatry is a modern form of idolatry in which we do what is best for the institution instead of the ethical guidelines given in the Torah and subsequent Jewish teachings. From a Mussar perspective, we are particularly focused on the guidelines of character and personal conduct.
As Mussar practitioners we have a responsibility to proactively try to prevent this thing from happening again. Read on to understand institutional pressures towards immoral action.
Why People at Penn State Fell into Idolatry
The 2011 sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University represents a sobering and upsetting example of what can happen when people fall into corporate idolatry. For over forty years Joe Paterno was the football coach at Penn State, and was widely respected as a leader, teacher, and philanthropist. How is it that Paterno and the top officials at Penn State University did not report assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to the police for child abuse after Sandusky was discovered allegedly sodomizing a boy in the locker room shower? One explanation is corporate idolatry––Penn State University propagated a culture that put the interests of the institution (its football program in particular) ahead of the welfare of people. The high level of news coverage and detailed written reports allow insights into how corporate idolatry impacted people at all levels of the university.
In both 1998 and 2001, Paterno and the top officials at Penn State University did not report assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to the police for child abuse. In 2012 Sandusky was convicted of forty-five counts that ranged from “endangering the welfare of children” to “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.” Some of these crimes happened after 2001, and would have been prevented if Paterno, and other university officials had informed the police.
According to the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Penn State had a “reverence for football program ingrained at all levels of the university.”11 This started from the top, with a “president who discouraged discussion and dissent,” and included the attendant who switched off CNN on the TV in the Penn State student center just before the Freeh Report was released.
Penn State University has a culture of idolatry because the culture prioritized football over the safety of children. Does this mean that everyone associated with the university are a bunch of evil idolators? Not at all. But, everyone at PSU is impacted by the pervasive foot- ball-first value system. And, people who opposed the football-first value system paid a price. For example, former VP of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey “butted heads with Paterno and his football supporters,” and according to The Daily Beast, was fired for investigating players for allegedly sexual assaults. Triponey’s boss, former PSU president Graham Spanier, allegedly gave her poor performance reviews because she “wasn’t fitting in with the ‘Penn State way.’”
Because the Freeh report, was based on interviews with hundreds of people, we have a unique opportunity to understand why people participated in Penn State’s football-first value system. I have seen these same four causes of idolatry in the stories I heard from the corporate world, as well as in the literature that discusses idolatry in the ancient world. make it possible to tease out the different reasons people commit idolatry
- For personal advantage. I think many of the university officers embraced the culture of idolatry because it gave them perks, power, and wealth. According to the Freeh Report, these men “exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being.”16 They were more concerned with the reputation of the institution, and by extension their own reputations. I suspect that Paterno and the others used rationalizations to ease their consciences, and saw themselves as doing the right thing.
- Out of habit and blind obedience. Timothy Curley, the former athletic director, is described as “a State College native with a long family history at Penn State.” Some at PSU referred to Curley as “Paterno’s errand boy,” and others characterized him as “loyal to a fault to university management and the chain of command; someone who followed instruction regardless of the consequences.”17
- Out of fear. In the fall of 2000, a janitor saw Sandusky with a boy in the shower. By all accounts, the janitor was devastated by what he had seen but was afraid he would lose his job if he spoke up. He said the following to investigators, “I know Paterno has so much power, [and] if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone … football runs this univer- sity, and the university would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.”18
- By error. On November 9, 2011, Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State, and thousands of students rioted, chanting, “One more game.” This is what philosophers call “Idolatry by Error.” Idolatry by error is a behavior that persists due to cultural traditions whose foundation is based on incorrect information. These kids were raised on the notion that Paterno was a great leader who taught his players how to be great men. In other words, the protesters thought that Paterno had been scapegoated and that they were standing up against a great injustice.These same four reasons: personal advantage, habit, fear, and error help explain why people practice idolatry throughout the corporate world.
This excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help For the Chronically Overworked was reprinted with the permission of the author. The full book is available on Amazon. Click here to learn more.