If you’ve read any of my writing, you know I hold legendary football coach Vince Lombardi in high regard. I’m a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and have great admiration for the man who coached the team during the 1960s, so I often quote him when I write.
One quote often attributed to Lombardi is, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” And while Lombardi wasn’t the first to utter those words (they’re actually attributed first to UCLA Bruins football coach Red Sanders dating back to 1949), he did, on occasion, use those exact words.
I must disagree with Lombardi (and Sanders) on the importance of winning. In our society today, that kind of emphasis is put on winning. The “greatness” of athletes who don’t win a championship in their sport is constantly called into question. Just ask LeBron James. Until his Miami Heat won the NBA championship a month ago, people openly questioned his ability to win on the sport’s biggest stage and the shadow this failure would cast on his career.
The same is true in business. Executives are under constant pressure to come out on top. Shareholders and analysts want consistent growth in earnings. They’re looking for those executives and companies that can consistently outperform their competitors. You’re only as good as your last earnings report.
It’s all about winning! And if you’re not a winner, you must be a loser. Who wants to be a loser?
But what’s the price of winning? In our “win at all costs” society, who pays the price? There are times when the ends don’t justify the means.
Just take a look at what’s transpired at Penn State University. The recently released Report of the Special Investigative Counsel into the Actions of The Pennsylvania State University Related to the Child Sexual Abuse Committed by Gerald A. Sandusky, reveals what can happen when winning and reputation are put above all else.
In his 46 years as Penn State’s head football coach, Joe Paterno had created quite a legacy. He was the winningest football coach in NCAA Division I history with 409 wins, he had five undefeated seasons, won two national championships, and was named the National Coach of the Year five times. That’s quite a record of winning.
But Paterno was put on a pedestal not only for winning but for the way he won. He was widely respected for winning the right way, never running afoul of the NCAA and touting the Penn State football program’s motto of “Success with Honor.” He once said, “Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.”
It seems that for more than a decade Coach Paterno and other officials at Penn State University looked the other way when it came to the Sandusky child sexual abuse allegations because they would cast a negative light on the university and its football program. So much for “Success with Honor.”
The Report of the Special Investigative Counsel, which was led by Louis J. Freeh, the former head of the FBI, concluded, “The most saddening findings by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”
The report also stated that four of the most powerful people at Penn State, including Joe Paterno, “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities. They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being.”
The report finally concluded, “Taking into account the available witness statements and evidence, the Special Investigative Counsel finds that it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the University repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from authorities.”
Where’s the honor in all of this? Just consider these statements from the report:
- “the total and consistent disregard . . . for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”
- “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”
- “exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims”
- “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from authorities”
The price for winning and protecting the reputation of Penn State University and its football program was the innocence of these children. Where doubts existed about Paterno’s role in all of this, many of them have been dismissed by the counsel’s report.
A friend of mine likes to say, “What you DO speaks so loud I cannot hear what you SAY.” Joe Paterno may have spoken about success with honor, but his actions speak so loudly that his words don’t matter. It’s apparent to me that Paterno didn’t know the meaning of the word honor.
It’s too bad he had so many of us fooled for so long. It’s easy to say the right things until your morals are put to the test, then the proof is in how your respond. When it came time for Paterno to respond, he failed miserably. There’s a lesson in this for all of us.