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The Penn State Scandal: Ceding Personal Responsibility To Institutional Bureaucracy

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In high school, I would run near the local athletic fields at dusk still thick with the summer heat to ready myself for football two-a-days. I’d blast rap through my Walkman, mentally disassociate myself from the furnace around me, and repeat nonsensical mantras in my head to make it through another wind sprint. I’d tune everything out in the way that teenagers uniquely can.

One evening, I caught a glimpse of something that I couldn’t tune out, a snapshot that filled me with dread and doubt. It was a young boy, alone on a bench near the parking lot, waiting for a parent to pick him up. Beside him was a car driven by a solitary man, presumably a parent, who seemed to be doing just that.

Except that the boy’s affect was alarmingly off. I saw paralysis and recoil, frozen like a fawn in headlights, shying from the vehicle. The car was shabby, the man driving it more so, and his gestures and energy struck me as strange - pleading, forceful, coercive.

I rationalized it away. This must be the boy’s father. Not my problem. Not my business. I remember thinking, don’t look back there. Even as tendrils of concern crept into my brain, I resolved that it was no reason to make a fool of myself. Bad things didn’t happen in my middle-class neighborhood.

I looked back. The scene hadn’t changed. And as my stomach began to turn over on itself and my hands unconsciously clenched, I knew I had some sort of responsibility here, even though I couldn’t articulate exactly what that was. I conjured harmless explanations for what I was seeing, but they weren’t ringing true against the look on the boy’s face. I remember scanning to see if there was an adult around. It occurred to me that, at 17, I was the adult who was around.

I approached the car from the passenger window. I asked if everything was OK. The glare the man fixed me with told me that it was not. The boy didn’t answer. I repeated myself, this time looking only at the driver, and it was no longer in the form of a question. He regarded me with the nervous half-nod tic of someone trying to talk themselves into something. I stared back. My eyes went from his to his hands, praying they wouldn’t reach towards the glove compartment.

He drove away.

The boy was shaking. I was too. I bent down, said something nonsensically reassuring ("I’m a good guy" - as if an assertion of comic book morality would lend credence to one stranger over another) and he related, through sobs, that his mother was supposed to pick him up. When I asked him if he knew the man, he didn’t answer. Or couldn’t. I walked him to a nearby pizza place, figured out his phone number with the help of a worker, and called his Mom. She arrived in a panic, explained that there had been confusion about who was picking him up, and offered me a reward and a ride home. I refused the former on principle, the latter because of some inexplicable feeling of embarrassment at being driven home, gave her my information, and then ran home through the darkness imagining the screeching of car tires behind me.

In retrospect, I didn’t handle the situation perfectly. I left calling the police to the panicked mother, who vowed to me that she would. I didn’t have the presence of mind to note a license plate. I couldn’t get an answer from either on who the man was to them and to this day I don’t know what I stumbled on to. But I did something.

This is the memory that occurred to me when I learned about the Penn State scandal and the coach - or the image of a coach - I once admired.

When the accusations of former Penn State defensive coordinator (and one time Paterno heir apparent) Jerry Sandusky’s misconduct first came to light, the administration had the chance to do something more forceful than a locker room ban on an accused sexual predator. They chose N.I.M.B.Y instead of basic ethics. Their message to the accused? Exploit these kids elsewhere. It inconveniences and embarrasses us when you do it here.

The Grand Jury's finding is here. It’s a graphic, horrible, soul-crushing document. It alleges Sandusky’s use of his Second Mile charity to exploit a number of vulnerable young boys without positive male role models in their lives, starting in the 1990s to nearly present day. On multiple occasions, Sandusky is alleged to have been caught by adult eye witnesses doing things ranging from inappropriate to outright rape and, in most instances, the witnesses, and the people in positions of authority informed of these accounts, didn’t call the police, confront Sandusky, or intervene substantively.

The administrators clearly weighed how the allegations affected their athletic department, their reputation, their hard-earned image as all that’s right with college athletics. It became an exercise in corporate minimization instead of individual citizenship. I’m sure Joe Paterno’s recent losing seasons (5-7 in 2000; 5-6 in 2001; 3-9 in 2003; 4-7 in 2004) around the time of these allegations along with an increase in off-the-field player discipline issues and the increasing perception that the program was being run by an out-of-touch figurehead also informed their reaction.

So they chose the program over people. They chose to hide behind bureaucracy and reporting structures instead of honoring the basic compass of human decency, and anyone who can’t find their bearings on child rape is truly lost. Penn State’s administrators and coaches demonstrated the dumb compliance of an East German wall guard just following orders and the callous self-interest of a politician or crooked executive, doing-the-least-the-letter-of-the-law-requires to serve their own ends instead of honoring human beings, specifically eight children. That we’re aware of. There are always more. Sadly, of that much we can be sure.

Penn State’s administration - and let's be very clear: Head Coach Joe Paterno - ceded the personal moral obligation that each of us holds to HR rules, technicalities, and institutional bureaucracy; as if Jerry Sandusky had been caught stealing stationery, and that the policies of their petty satrapy trumped human decency and our implicit obligation to look out for the vulnerable and defenseless.

I’ll never assert that Penn State should have known all along. Child predators excel at exploiting trust, building facades, playing upon our default assumptions. But they should have known when they knew. And they knew.

One of many alleged incidents detailed in the Grand Jury’s findings happened in 2002 when then 28 year old Graduate Assistant (and former Penn State QB) Mike McQueary, currently a position coach at Penn State, allegedly walked in on Jerry Sandusky while in the act of sodomizing a ten year old boy in the showers. He didn’t forcibly intercede. He didn’t call the police. He called his father. He called Joe Paterno. Paterno informed his athletic director. Who informed the school president. After this game of telephone, their decisive action was to ban Sandusky from the Penn State locker room. Yet, as recently as a week ago, Sandusky was still using Penn State facilities.

No one confronted Sandusky, sought out the boy, or most obviously, called the police and Child Protective services. Knowing means doing when the matter is this plain. That Penn State would have acted more decisively if a player had been reported driving an agent’s car or accepting cash handshakes from a booster is a grotesque mockery of the concept of program integrity and everything Joe Paterno is said to have represented.

The proper resolution for the Penn State coaches and administrators who shirked their responsibilities, not just as university caretakers, but as citizens, as human beings - is clear enough for anyone who isn’t a moral infant. It means, at the very least, head coach Joe Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier should join Athletic Director Tim Curley and VP of Operations Gary Schultz on the golf course and they should all be punished, if not by the law, at least to serve as an object lesson in disgrace.

Along with anyone else at Penn State who was aware of these incidents and acted in a manner evocative of a Soviet Era Politburo apparatchik shrugging and sighing at another child ground down in the gears of the apparatus All For The Greater Good of Penn State Football.

A word to Penn State fans: these men are not the school you love. They. Are. Not. They were employed by it, some of them even seemed to be its very incarnation, and some will try to hide in its cloak. But when their actions betray their own stated ideals, you have to abandon them. Do it as emotionlessly as they abandoned those boys.

Chris Grovich, of the excellent Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries, gets it.

The sickening sense of betrayal and the fear of having your worst suspicions confirmed; the shock of seeing the foundation of what Penn State athletics stands for undermined and destroyed - personal discomfort, a career - is meaningless in the decisional calculus when it comes to stopping young boys from having their lives destroyed. Once you understand that, that call to the police comes easily.

Penn State’s leaders - grown men of power and authority - should have acted in the interest of the victimized instead of engaging in a cynical game of weighing child abuse against a PR hit in a calculated game of buck-passing legitimized by rubber stamping bureaucratic flunkies. Their concern was for what this meant to their Happy Valley. Their Camelot. Their legacy.

Because of that, young boys suffered unimaginably for years in the most horrifying betrayal of the mentor-child relationship possible.

They’ll read from carefully crafted statements expressing their profound regret. They’ll disguise their failure in the various code words and rhetoric manufactured by consultants and lawyers designed to marginalize and cloud basic notions of right and wrong. They'll call it incompetent. Call it wrong. Call it unfortunate. Call it irresponsible. Call it regrettable. They'll assert they did what they should have. What the law required. They'll count on the fact that 95% of us won’t bother to familiarize ourselves with the basic facts of the allegations.

So I’ll simply call it what it is - cowardice. And I wish them all the coward’s fate: a thousand more deaths before their last.