Combating the Hero Worship Culture at Penn State: the NCAA Got It Exactly Right

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    By David Gebler and Donna Boehme

    In the wake of the Penn State child abuse scandal, many in the media were outraged by the NCAA’s decision to instantly vacate the university’s win record from 1998 through 2011. As two ethicists with a combined 40+ years working in the trenches with organizations and their cultures, we’d like to offer the opposite view: the NCAA got it exactly right.

    Former FBI agent and assistant US attorney Louis Freeh was unflinchingly stern toward Penn State’s “culture of reverence” for legendary coach Joe Paterno, his coaching staff, and the entire football program in his detailed 270-page independent report. Culture is a dramatic influencer of behavior for better or for worse.

    While each individual is personally responsible for his or her actions, the culture we’re immersed in determines how hard it will be to maintain our integrity, and whether our human vulnerabilities will drive us to do things we’re not proud of.

    Culture can neither be internally mandated nor externally legislated. In short, culture is “the way things are done around here.” Good or bad, an organization’s culture is grown organically from within and driven by the words and actions of its leaders. At Penn State, that culture was a blind hero worship of all things football, and it permeated every level of the organization and the community, with terrible results.

    So entrenched was its hero-worship culture that crowds of angry students rioted and women sobbed after the board’s unanimous decision to fire Paterno, even after the shocking revelations of unrestrained child sexual abuse were widely disseminated. That one scene alone said it all about the powerful impact an embedded culture can have on an entire organization.

    Healthy organizations have checks and balances to guide how they govern themselves, allocate resources, and make important decisions. It’s the role of boards, internal and external audits, legal and compliance policies, and even individual employees to enforce accountability and serve as controls on the operation of unchecked power. But in some organizations, like Penn State, the entire system of checks and balances can be subverted by culture.

    A hero-worship culture trumps controls. It creates blinders that can cloud decision-making and destroy any sense of individual responsibility or “the right thing to do”—even for a 28-year-old assistant coach stumbling upon a horrific attack on a child in a locker room shower.

    That culture drives an entire university community—from an acquiescent board to deferential administrative officials, to devoted students and public fans—to create a cult of personality around a legendary coach and an entire football program.

    In his report, Freeh describes it as a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” In the face of such idolatry, a mere victim, a victim’s family, or an observant employee doesn’t really stand a chance.

    Faced with a potential scandal, and influenced by their hero worships Penn State repeatedly hid damaging facts, empowering Sandusky to continue his despicable acts. The Freeh report confirms a conspiracy of silence designed to save an institution’s reputation (and lucrative revenue stream) at the cost of young lives, both those who had already been harmed and those who were yet to be harmed.

    The independent panel describes “callous disregard for child victims” and “an active agreement to conceal”—all of this to save the institution from scandal and negative press.

    Although Freeh may have found elements of a conspiracy, no one had to be told what to do. As one janitor who was an eyewitness to the abuse said in his testimony, reporting what he saw to the police “would have been like going against the President of the United States.”

    Penn State’s culture acted as an unstoppable force rising up to protect the institution and its officials, with unthinkable, monstrous consequences.

    What’s needed at Penn State is a complete blood transfusion of good culture for bad. Joe Paterno’s hero status and the university’s “win at all costs” identity have to be replaced by accountability and transparency.

    Presaged by the symbolic removal of Paterno’s iconic statue in the same week, the NCAA’s debilitating penalties have set the table for the institution to spend years, perhaps decades, resetting “the way things are done around here,” initially under the careful watch of a court-appointed monitor.

    During what will undoubtedly be a long and painful rebuild, one hopes that new leadership and a meaningful system of checks and balances will begin to create a new culture of individual responsibility and integrity, ultimately exorcising the hero worship culture that brought a once-great institution to its knees.


    Donna Boehme is the Principal, of Compliance Strategists LLC, a member of the advisory board of the RAND Center for Corporate Ethics and Governance, and former global compliance and ethics officer of two leading multinationals. Learn more at

    David Gebler ( is the principal of Skout Group, LLC, a global firm advising organizations on reducing culture-based risk, and is the author of The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity and Transparency Remove the Roadblocks to Performance (Jossy-Bass, 2012).