“If we as a society cannot protect our children, then we are pathetic.” – Matt Millen, Penn State DT 1976-1979
So…this is how it ends. As I wake up today; the first day in my 43 years in which Joe Paterno is not the head coach at Penn State, I can’t help but ask myself how the hell did this happen?
The whole point of this blog from its inception has been to provide a unique view of the world of sports. More often than not, this has been done with a sense of humor, sometimes a thick sense of satire, and sometimes by being completely absurd. However, there are times where I abandon all pretense and speak in a very blunt and direct manner because of the seriousness of the subject matter.
Obviously, my discussion of what happened at Penn State will be one of those times. Frankly, this has been a time of great personal angst for me; it doesn’t take long reading through the archives of this blog to discover that I have a connection to the university and that Coach Paterno has been a revered figure in my life. Most obviously, this will be one of those times because there is nothing funny about the sexual abuse of children.
In much of the conversation throughout the media I have seen, there has been much debate over Paterno’s role in this matter. There’s one school of thought that wants to hold Paterno accountable for the entire situation, while another feels he did what he was supposed to do and therefore still deserves the adoration of the fans who have appreciated the two national championships he won in 46 years at the helm in State College.
Both sides have passion for their position, both sides have argued vehemently for their position, yet both sides are missing a terribly important point. In other words, if you are bent on arguing one side or the other of this discussion, feel free to take that discussion elsewhere. I’m not interested in your soapbox rantings, your righteous indignation, or whatever else you may have to offer that is off the real point of this blog: How do we stop this from happening again?
Stopping this from happening again is the only facet of this discussion in which I’m interested, and it renders all the other aspects of the discussion utterly pointless, with the sole exception of examining them in order to understand the pathology of such horrible events.
That’s really why I didn’t write this piece on Monday as the real ugliness of this story was breaking. But today, I feel compelled. Once I saw the grand jury report come out, I knew my personal feelings about Coach Paterno no longer mattered in this affair. I knew nobody’s personal feelings mattered anymore, but I also knew those feelings were going to drive the debate. This was going to cause a massive outpouring of those emotions, which I knew would need to be avoided because to get to the bottom of why things like this happen, we as a nation have to take a hard look at our methods of organizational management.
Collectively, we are looking for one figure at which to point a finger so that we can all roll over and go back to sleep. It is so much easier to point at one factor and say “if for that one thing, event x wouldn’t have happened” than it is to say “perhaps we need to take a hard look at how we handle these situations.”
That is exactly why I don’t want to hear anymore of this pointless argument “who should have done what when” argument. Besides the fact that it doesn’t solve anything, it frames the entire discussion in terms of blaming somebody who wasn’t the one abusing the children.
Not to mention those fingers might end up pointing back at you. I’ll come back to that later…
Until we re-focus our collective anger over such issues back to the appropriate targets, this problem will continue to exist. Penn State is not the first organization to have a problem like this, and it won’t be the last. Paterno isn’t the first middle-manager to have something off-putting reported to him, and he won’t be the last. Penn State senior management isn’t the first such group to bury the report, and they won’t be the last. All because Jerry Sandusky isn’t the first child-raping monster we’ve had to deal with, but he should be the last.
The trouble is he won’t be.
No matter how you want to frame the discussion, today finds Joe Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier cleaning out their offices. The two former PSU officials currently under indictment (Curley and Schultz) will be facing their own legal consequences, and Jerry Sandusky will soon enough be in prison getting a daily diet of what he was handing out.
Not a single one of those facts – not a single goddamn one – will prevent another child from being abused due to an organizational cover-up.
In other words, this whole incident should be about Sandusky being a degenerate pederast. If you can’t bring yourself to blame the obvious, if you feel the need to widen the debate, then at least have the balls to do it in a productive manner. The damage in this case has already been done, so as I’ve said, there’s no point to the “Who knew what and when did they know it?” debate.
Instead, we as a society need to address the following:
First of all, we need to at least get a grasp as to why human nature draws us to the cover-up. There is almost no better subject than the abuse of children to draw the prototypical “tough-guy” talk; you know, the kind that starts with “if I were the one who saw that” or “if that were my kid.” That sort of talk belongs in the same sort rubbish bin as the Joe Six-Pack in a bar who has a few too many beers and thinks he could take on an MMA fighter.
You don’t want to believe that. In fact, you are reading this and thinking that I’m not talking about you. Right now, you are constructing an argument that will let you believe I’m wrong, that somehow you are different; that somehow the laws of human nature which have remained unchanged since the days of wooly mammoths and cave drawings do not apply to you.
While you are constructing that argument, consider this: blowing the whistle is the decided exception to the rule. If you are taking the grand jury testimony to heart, then you know the Penn State employee (Mike McQueary) who witnessed an act of abuse in 2002 was an assistant football coach. Without knowing anything about the man’s personality, I think we could all agree that any coach at the big-time college level is no shrinking violet. He’s a tougher guy than you are, but he didn’t spring into the “tough guy” reaction.
Then there’s Paterno. It’s obvious Paterno is a tougher guy than you. He was running out on the field with his team into his late 70’s; it took a hit from a Wisconsin tight end that would have crippled you to stop him. The fact that he can deal with the rigors of being a big-time head coach at an age when most men his age are in a box speaks to “Chuck Norris level” tough.
Paterno is a guy who has been the gold standard for football coaches for close to 50 years, and the fact that he blanched upon getting the news of what Sandusky was doing speaks volumes to the fact that the reaction to this sort of news is not predictable.
If you don’t want to believe that, ask yourself this: Even if you want to hold Paterno’s feet to the fire, do you really think Paterno made a conscious decision to allow the raping of children? Let’s be honest, Paterno made a terrible mistake, but not the one everybody thinks he made. At the end of the day, nobody really believes Paterno is an evil man, in fact it is quite the opposite. All the great things Paterno has accomplished in the past 60+ years didn’t suddenly evaporate.
Don’t misunderstand me…this is by no means a defense of Joe Paterno. It is literally killing a piece of me to say this, but this incident showed that it was time for the Paterno era in State College to come to a close.
I beg you to follow along closely to understand where I’m coming from with this. Go back to my original question about Paterno. Before you answer that, stop to remember the whole situation, and more importantly stop to view this not as somebody reading grand jury testimony (which was produced at the end of a lengthy investigation which produced information you would not have been privy to at the time), but in the light as it was presented to Paterno.
According the grand jury testimony, Paterno was told that Jerry Sandusky did things of a “sexual nature” to a child. The make-you-want-to-puke details don’t come out until later. Meanwhile, consider that Sandusky was Paterno’s colleague and friend for over three decades.
In order to believe Paterno made such a monstrous conscious decision, you have to believe that a man who spent 63 years as a football coach at the same university would turn his back on a decades-long friendship. Say what you want to about Paterno, but the man exudes loyalty.
So, let’s go back to your “if that was me” argument. Are you certain – absolutely certain – that if somebody approached you and said your friend of 30 years was raping a kid in the shower, would you believe it? Would you even want to believe it?
Even if you did believe it, what would you do?
Option number one is to call the police, but remember an important legal point here…you didn’t see it happen, somebody only told you it happened, and didn’t even do that until the next day. That means even if you called the police, they aren’t going to act because they can’t do anything based on third-party information.
Option number two is to confront your friend…Oh, except you can’t in this case, because your friend is also your employee. Don’t forget for purposes of the Penn State organizational chart, Joe Paterno was a middle-manager and the accused Jerry Sandusky as the defensive coordinator was his direct report. That means there are all kinds of rules about how you address such allegations.
Option number three is to tell the Penn State employee who reported seeing the abuse to call the police…Oh, except you can’t do that because because the employee already fulfilled their organizational obligation by informing you.
In other words, you can’t go to the cops, you can’t confront your friend, and since the person who reported the incident also is an employee, you really can’t tell them what to do after they’ve told you about the incident in question.
In other words, Paterno did the only thing he legally could do. So, the argument becomes not what Paterno knew and when he knew it. Rather it becomes a matter of why do we force people in this country into positions where they need to worry more about legalities than moralities?
In other words, when did we become a country of such gutless wimps we worry more about covering our own asses instead of doing what’s right?
The bottom line here is this: Only Sandusky, Curley, and Schultz have criminal responsibility in this affair, which is why they are under indictment. The rest of this fiasco is a result of organizational mismanagement, an astonishing lack of leadership, and the fact that this country has too many “if that were my kid” people.
It isn’t difficult to see this if you break it down. The Penn State situation is horrifying not only for the heinous nature of the crimes alleged to have been committed, but it illustrates the gutless, soulless, and borderline-criminally negligent management we’ve allowed to exist in this country. Think about it. At no point in this this process did anybody show the leadership needed to stand up and scream from the top of Old Main “EXCUSE ME, WE HAVE A CHILD-RAPING MONSTER ON OUR HANDS! WHAT THE HELL ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT!”
Instead, a collection of football coaches – guys who pride themselves of instilling qualities into young men such as leadership, accountability, and courage – showed absolutely none of those things in themselves.
This is the part that’s tearing my guts out. Of all the people I held as heroes, one thing they all represented was being that “tough guy leader;” the guy that would stand up and say “THIS IS WRONG AND WE ARE GOING TO FIX IT!” For 43 years of my life, Joe Paterno was one of those guys.
Today, it is clear he no longer is. And he must go.
I mention this only because if we have a situation where something so monstrous is allowed to exist in a place that prides itself on leadership, accountability, and courage; in a place led by a living legend who exemplified those qualities, then it is incumbent upon EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US to understand that this can happen anywhere, and that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US to see that it doesn’t.
Look at the organizational management structures we use in this country. Just about every organization you can think of (Penn State included) has rules about reporting wrong-doing, and several of them (Penn State included) has rules about who is allowed to contact external entities. Clearly, the rules are in place at Penn State; so much so that a graduate assistant coach didn’t immediately call 911 when he saw a sexual assault in progress.
The fact that nobody – NOBODY – stood up on the several opportunities which presented themselves to take the lead in this matter is an indictment of those individuals only so long as you are willing to contemplate the complete picture. The fact that so many people chose to “pass the buck” suggest they had a reason to do so; that the terms of not “toeing the company line” are grave enough to make them turn a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children. In other words, you must ask the question why did the organization put those individuals in a position forcing them into such a decision in the first place?
Now, back to the “if that was my kid” guy. First of all, why does it have to be your kid? Does that mean you wouldn’t do anything if it weren’t your kid? Don’t recoil at that question; after all, it wasn’t Mike McQueary’s kid getting raped in the shower, and he did nothing.
Stop and think about why he did nothing. Suppose he breaks up the assault and beats the crap out of Sandusky in the process. The child victim then refuses to testify that he was in fact being raped. Now, McQueary is in the spot of facing a assault charge of his own, and he beat up a guy higher on the food chain than himself. He did the right thing, but now he’s looking a jail time and the loss of his job. He didn’t risk that for somebody else’s kid.
You’ve got to understand that lately we have a track record in this country of people almost always choosing to cover their ass and protect their jobs and friends rather than do the right thing. If you can read the grand jury report of the Sandusky allegations and a) not get a vivid mental picture that makes you literally sick to your stomach and b) not want to blow his junk off with a 12-gauge, you may be as must of a monster as he is.
But what that rage, bloodlust, and thirst for justice hides is the equally-as-important concept that monsters like Sandusky live with the system we’ve built, and they live there because “good” people can be forced to make decisions that ring more of self-preservation than “right” and “wrong.”
If it can happen to a man like Joe Paterno, it can happen to you.
It makes you feel better to think you would have the balls to do the right thing when faced with such a seemingly obvious choice. The truth is, you might not, because when push comes to shove, you are really being forced in such a situation to choose between legal and moral. If you aren’t willing to take the risks, then it does in fact have to be “your kid.”
Matt Millen is right. As a society, that makes us pathetic.