What is the real tragedy of Penn State?

As events unfolded last week at Penn State most people saw the situation as tragic. Exactly what they considered tragic was instructive and says a lot about the values we hold—both individually and as a society.

Many saw tragedy in the tarnishing of Penn State’s reputation—and new irony in their football motto “Success with Honor.” Many were upset that a football legend’s career would end so ignominiously. Many found it hard to fathom that an instance of sexual abuse would be witnessed by an adult who did not immediately intervene. Others found it hard to imagine those responsible for enforcing the law would willfully look away. Many were appalled by the allegation that young boys were abused by adult(s) in authority.

The central tragedy here is that young boys were (allegedly) abused by an authority figure and those in power chose to put their own interests above that of the victims.

What do the riots that broke out in response to Joe Paterno’s firing say about our values? What are we saying to the victims when the sexual predator’s name immediately became shorthand in a joke? What does it say about the Penn State environment when a grown man felt unable to immediately report (or intervene) when an instance of sexual abuse was witnessed?

Accountability is lacking within our institutions—and our broader society. In this instance there was a lot of noise about holding administrators accountable for firing Paterno—less about holding Jerry Sandusky accountable for his actions. Does a football program take precedence over basic human decency?

In my opinion, the biggest tragedy is that we’ve lost focus and empathy for the real victims.

Amanda Mitchell is an executive coach and strategist specializing in helping senior executives deal with disruptive drama within their teams. An advertising agency veteran, she experienced first-hand the business implications of corporate drama both with her Fortune 500 clients and within the Manhattan ad agency she led. She founded Our Corporate Life (www.ourcorporatelife.com) to help executives solve the problems no one wants to deal with. She has been published in Bloomberg Businessweek, and quoted in Fast Company, CNBC.com, and Monster.com. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

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