SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – In 1887, Britain’s Lord Acton wrote a letter containing the following passage:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
The first part of that passage has been used myriad times since it was written to caution against the excesses of power. The second half is seldom quoted, but I include it here to inform the discussion about Joe Paterno and the horrifying revelations at Penn State.
It’s possible Lord Acton thought “greatness” guaranteed “badness.” It’s also possible he meant that unchecked power, unbridled ego, would inevitably lead to trouble.
And so we have Joe Paterno. For many a year, Paterno ran what he liked to call a “Grand Experiment,” believing that it was possible to succeed in college athletics while also upholding academic integrity. And it seemed to be working. Penn State won often, and its football players achieved their degrees and avoided controversy.
But now we know what we know (and surely, there is much more that will be known before this is over). And we are left feeling angry, duped, outraged, saddened. How could Joe Paterno be both good and bad?
The answer, as Lord Acton wrote so long ago, may lie in the intoxicating and corrosive influence of power. Read this piece by Southern California psychologist Ronald Riggio. It was written two years ago but you can almost see the Penn State story in it if you look closely enough. One phrase stands out: “Leaders can delude themselves that they are working for the greater good (using socialized power), but engage in behavior that is morally wrong.”
In other words, Paterno could well have believed he was preserving something “greater” (his “Grand Experiment”) by ignoring the rape of children. Sounds strange, even horrifying, but human nature isn’t always logical or even explainable.
So where does that leave us? How do we not go here again?
Perhaps Lord Acton had it right. If so, the answer would be to avoid granting absolute power anywhere, and college athletic departments might be a good place to start.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS SF. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)