Really? By Phone? Joe Paterno deserved better.

Much as courage is form-fitted to the occasion that demands a heroic act, in times of crisis we try to form and bring the correct judgment–our internal compass, of sorts, to any problem that stands before us. We often succeed, but other times—many times–anything short of a spot-on determination of the correct course of action creates the most grievous outcome. We can only pray that we are not often tossed into that hot, refining crucible and that when we are, we acquit ourselves admirably, with a balance of justice and mercy toward our fellows. If we miss, if we fall away from the admirable judgment, close or far, then we must find the courage to accept the consequences of what we have done and/or failed to see, understand, and do.

As you know, much is being written about Joe Paterno upon his recent death. Lots of judgments on his life, vigorous analysis of his legacy.  As I read these kinds of articles, I am called to the adage “Even God doesn’t judge a man until the end of his days.” Frankly, I am not certain that one’s passing over grants the living a license to judge his or her life.  However, lessons can be learned from studying Coach Paterno’s life–powerful lessons!  Any child can see the consequences of some of his self-admitted flawed judgments, but to judge the man, as opposed to judging his actions, is something I will leave for a Higher Order of judge and jury. Thankfully, He is far more compassionate than any of His human creations are. And that is how it should be.

The life lesson I focus on in looking at Joe Paterno’s life is one that holds a great opportunity for each of us to increase our humanity day by day. It is the manner in which the board of trustees at Pennsylvania State University terminated Coach Paterno.  According to news reports, upon reaching a decision to terminate Coach Paterno, the trustees called him on the telephone to give him their decision!  After giving 46 years to the university, he was fired over the phone!

From what I read, the soundness of their judgment as to ending the coach’s tenure is not in question, but the manner in which the trustees acted upon their decision has drawn wide criticism. Why? When I speak on the vital attributes of great leaders–those who practice humanity, I naturally talk to the need for them to respect all others with whom they come in contact, from the mailroom to the boardroom, from the oil-drilling platform to the London penthouse and heliport.

Can any of us conceive of anything that is more important to our person than being respected? Being noticed and treated as a person of worth? I don’t know about you, but in my life, respecting someone and having that individual reciprocate in kind, feels like love’s closest cousin.  We so cling to notions of respect that the vicarious hurt we suffer in watching another being disrespected can sting as much as when we are so injured. Self-respect is so deep in our souls that it takes little imaginative effort to put ourselves in the melting pot of another person’s critical scene as it plays out!

Some claim that it’s trite, even childish to call a team of people–be it in sports, business, the military, or in our everyday lives a “family.”  Not so—when any group has a deep, energetic bond of feeling that passes between and among them, they are a family! In Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah (Dell Publishing, 1977), Richard Bach rightly describes a family:

“The bond that links your true family is not of blood but respect and joy in each other’s lives. That is why a family seldom grows up under one roof.”

Given that realistic definition, are a group of people genuinely concerned about the success and well-being of each member of that group family? You bet they are. But besides feeling and expressing “joy in each other’s lives,” the second key ingredient is a mutuality of respect. Meaning that most fifteen-year-olds know not to break up with a girlfriend or boyfriend over the phone.  That’s not an action taken after a judgment made in justice and mercy.

The next time you have to take a decision that involves another soul, carefully consider not only what you are about to do but how you are going to do it.   As William Butler Yeats asked in a poem:  “How can you tell the dancer from the dance?”  Considering how we give a judgment is as important, then, as the respect embedded in the content or message of the judgment.

Delivering hard messages in a manner of respect for the judged—and, thus, for yourself as well– might keep what is otherwise a good and just decision from becoming the bad seed that soon sprouts criticism of you—or of your board–by all who are affected and those who observe and read about your deed.

About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at
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