What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?

Posted 11.09.2011

In the days of the Watergate hearings, Senator Howard Baker became famous for asking the question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”  Today, the same question is being asked about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and administrative officers at the University.  It’s easy enough to find the details about the horrific sexual abuse allegations and indictment against a former top assistant to Paterno so there’s no need to recap them here.

It is stunning, however, to consider the damage that was done after top officials including Paterno were made aware of eye witness accounts and decided to not turn the case over to law enforcement. One can only assume that the decision to keep the information in-house was to protect the institution and the program. The conventional wisdom is that the cover up is worse than the crime.  If the allegations against the assistant coach are accurate, the conventional wisdom is wrong in this case. The crime is worse, but the cover up is both sickening and instructive.

Paterno has been the head coach at Penn State for almost 50 years. If you’re in a prominent leadership role for that long, the odds are you’re going to be confronted with some tough and ugly issues along the way. Keeping that question from Senator Baker in the back of your mind seems like a good guidepost for tough times. If the question, “What did he know and when did he know it?” puts a knot in your stomach, that’s your signal to get everything out on the table as quickly as possible. You owe it to yourself, your institution and, most importantly, the people who are being hurt to do so.