Penn State, Paterno, and Passing The Buck

I’ve been a casual sports fan most all of my life. And even though I don’t know the name of every team’s coach or every player on the field, I still know the name, Joe Paterno. In fact, as long as I’ve been alive he’s been the Head Coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions football program. He’s been such a fixture in the leadership of the Penn State athletic department that it seemed as though, at age 84, he was never going to retire. Of course, all that changed abruptly after the news broke of a sexual abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up that has been going on behind the closed doors of an athletic department whose motto is: “Success With Honor.”

Joe Paterno

At first, I wanted to dismiss the accusations that implied the well-known coach in the cover-up that helped aid the malfeasance of a sexual predator that he continued to call his assistant. But, as the facts continued to surface, it looked as though the accusations were absolutely true. How could a leader at the helm of one of the most respected college football programs in history turn a blind eye to the injustice taking place on his own turf? Simple. He passed the buck.

Have you ever passed the buck? Chances are you have, as have most of us at one time or another. We see the screaming kid being dragged to the car in the mall parking lot by his arm and his mom who’s obviously angry and not seeing things clearly and instead of getting her attention in hopes of relieving the child of harm, we turn the other way and walk into the mall. We justify doing this with an internal dialogue that goes something like: Why should I have to deal with this? This is not my responsibility, right? Besides, if I get involved then she’ll just be mad at me, and I shouldn’t have to deal with that. What if I get sued? I feel sorry for that kid, but he probably did something crazy in the toy store to deserve that sort of treatment. I’m sure it’ll be okay if I don’t say anything.

Isn’t that an accurate thought picture of what passing the buck looks like? There are no competing ideals here. There’s only what we know is right to do in this situation. There are no other options. But in the mind games of shifting responsibility, we find a way to pass this on to the next person by minimizing our role to play and maximizing the imagined emotional pain we’ll feel. When presented with an opportunity to stand for something we know is true, we make the decision based on what we would rather do.

When presented with an opportunity to stand for something we know is true, we make the decision based on what we would rather do.

The phrase, “passing the buck,” came from the world of card games where the token used to represent whose responsibility it was to deal the cards next was the bit of a buckshot or buck, for short. So, each time you passed the buck you were literally passing on the responsibility of dealing the cards to those at the table. Hence, the phrase “the buck stops here” was an act of taking personal responsibility for the dealing.

In the world of leadership, there’s never any room for “passing the buck.” Which is why this Penn State scandal is national news. Character commands influence, not competency. The story of Penn State, Joe Paterno, and passing the buck should serve, not as another opportunity for us to point the accusatory finger, but instead as a moment of reflection on the places and areas in our lives where we are abdicating personal responsibility for the fleeting pleasure of avoiding how bad it would make us feel if we did the right thing.

I’ll leave you today with an interrogatory quote from another great college sports coach:

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”
-Coach John Wooden

Coaching Question:
In what areas in your life are you “passing the buck” right now? Exercise your personal power and decide today that “the buck stops here” by taking personal responsibility for what you know is right.


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3 thoughts on “Penn State, Paterno, and Passing The Buck

  1. Beautifully said Jeremy. I posted a blog about the incident too and made the point that’s is sad to get to the end of a great career and lament that we “didn’t do enough,” about the injustice around us. It applies to us all.

    • Thanks, Gina. So true. I’m reminded of the great quote from Edmund Burke, “All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.”

  2. I’m still learning from you, as I’m trying to achieve my goals. I certainly liked reading everything that is written on your website.Keep the articles coming. I enjoyed it!