Understanding Penn State

I’ve read very little of the mainstream media coverage of the corruption in the Penn State football program, largely because if I hear/read someone talking about what this means for the future of the program, I may have to commit homicide. As a result, and because I follow some excellent people on Twitter, I suggest the following reading if you want to know what’s going on.

PhysioProf lays out the story in a way that doesn’t dance around the ethical failures of those involved:

Everyone else at Penn State looked to Paterno as their monarch, and when he made it clear that he was going to do the bare minimum legally required about this, they all followed his lead. This included allowing Sandusky to continue to exploit his relationship with Penn State to prey upon and rape more young boys.

For Penn State to allow Paterno to take the field as coach this Saturday and to continue to coach until the end of the season constitutes condonement of child rape, and minimization of the grievous harm that Sandusky and Paterno by their actions have caused to who knows how many young boys. And note that deciding to allow Sandusky the continued use of the reputation and physical infrastructure of the Penn State football program to prey on young boys was an affirmative action by Paterno, not just inaction.

John Scalzi looks at the most widely reported incident at Penn State–the discovery of a rape in progress–and tells you how this works, because, sadly, someone clearly needs to be told this:

These things should be simple:

1. When, as an adult, you come come across another adult raping a small child, you should a) do everything in your power to rescue that child from the rapist, b) call the police the moment it is practicable.

2. If your adult son calls you to tell you that he just saw another adult raping a small child, but then left that small child with the rapist, and then asks you what he should do, you should a) tell him to get off the phone with you and call the police immediately, b) call the police yourself and make a report, c) at the appropriate time in the future ask your adult son why the fuck he did not try to save that kid.

3. If your underling comes to you to report that he saw another man, also your underling, raping a small child, but then left that small child with the rapist, you should a) call the police immediately, b) alert your own superiors, c) immediately suspend the alleged rapist underling from his job responsibilities pending a full investigation, d) at the appropriate time in the future ask that first underling why the fuck he did not try to save that kid.

4. When, as the officials of an organization, you are approached by an underling who tells you that one of his people saw another of his people raping a small child at the organization, in organization property, you should a) call the police immediately, b) immediately suspend the alleged rapist from his job responsibilities if the immediate supervisor has not already done so, c) when called to a grand jury to testify on the matter, avoid perjuring yourself. At no time should you decide that the best way to handle the situation is to simply tell the alleged rapist not to bring small children onto organization property anymore.

PennLive is reporting on reactions at the campus through the eyes of an unusual source, the sister of one of the victims:

For this student and her family, the pain has lasted years. But there was no preparing for how Sandusky’s much-awaited arrest would explode into a scandal that will end the career of legendary coach Joe Paterno and her university’s president.

And in all of that, a message is lost.

“I’ve just been really upset about it all because a lot of people aren’t focusing on the victims in this,” she said. “And instead they’re focusing on other things, like football. As much as you shouldn’t blame the football players … they should be focusing on their respect for the families and what they’ve been through.”

PZ looks at the role that the privilege awarded to football programs has played in creating the scandal:

But they also turn into hyper-inflated domains of privilege, where the coaches are paid more than faculty, students and alumni vividly demonstrate the etymological source of the term “fan”, and the athletes too often turn into swaggering assholes. Can we just have small athletic programs where it’s all for fun, and no one makes the games more important than the academics?

I am speaking, of course, of the sordid events going on at Penn State. Children are raped by an assistant coach; the staff knows about it all for a long time, and either turns a blind eye to it or whimpers among itself; nothing is done. Paterno, the head coach and king of football in Happy Valley, was allowed to sail on unperturbably, still holding his job, still coaching, and the only change in his routine was that the university wasn’t letting the press talk to him. This is the guy who knew about his defensive coach’s behavior for a long time.

Edward Wykoff Williams notes that, while we don’t know the identity of Sandusky’s victims, we do know that they were poor urban boys looking to athletics for help, which makes them likely to be black. He digs into why the inequalities experienced by this group make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of institutional abuse:

The grand jury indictment of Sandusky is written in such a way as to fully protect the victims’ identity, and as such the racial make-up of the children remains unknown. But one defining trait is consistent among the alleged victims of Eddie Long, Sandusky, Oliva and Lorch: they were all poor and/or inner-city, underprivileged youth. This bears out a universal truth, that those with the least defense mechanisms are the most vulnerable.

Young black boys are often disproportionately without resources, left to cling to a hope and a dream, and this often involves athletic aspirations as their way out. In a society that offers them few pathways to success, they can be easily led to trust predators against their better instincts. And with an African-American culture that prizes a hyper-masculine ideal, it is nearly impossible for them to admit when and if they have been victimized by another man.

Much of the media coverage on the events at Penn State has centered on Coach Joe Paterno, his 61-year long career, and the fact that with 409 wins, he recently surpassed Grambling State’s Eddie Johnson to become the most-winning coach in college football history. But is this what really matters? Is there so little concern for the actual victims? And if we as a society allow ourselves to be so sorely misguided, are we not accomplices to the neglect inherent in the victimization of these children?

It’s good to see that some people recognize that this isn’t about anyone’s winning season.

Understanding Penn State
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35 thoughts on “Understanding Penn State

  1. 3

    And Penn State students/fans rioted in defense of this indefensible coach and his policies.

    Part of the frothy mix surrounding PSU’s scandal: then-Senator Rick Santorum in 2002 nominated former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for a “Congressional Angels in Adoption Award.”

    These guys are so inspiring, always thinking of the children…

  2. Pat

    Okay, people continue to pillory the grad student – a grad student who just witnessed one of the most powerful people in his world doing something so horrifyingly wrong, trying to process it. And if he assaults him in a shower with these allegations, we’ve seen the riots in support of the coach even after all of this came out in public… we don’t know what he was thinking. But we know he didn’t have Paterno’s power or perspective.

    I’m seeing this used as an excuse to go after him and ignore Paterno, who has NO excuses of fear of power, confusion as to role and responsibility, and so-on. Paterno, who knew the assailant well and still slept well at night for nine years, doing nothing… providing an example to everyone else under his sway of doing nothing to stop Sandusky. A man whose staggering lack of morality allowed him to continue to simply drift day in and day out past the showers where he knew a child predator plyed his trade, and he knew, absolutely he had the power to stop. He, personally, could have stopped Sandusky, removed his privileges, reported him, destroyed and dismantled his “charity” and so-on.

    Abuse of power. The staggering abuse of power and its implications should not be lost in a wash of anger over a grad student who was a direct witness and reported it. Paterno is so far beyond anything McQueary might have even remotely accomplished. If he’d done what people are suggesting, we might have seen a blotter in 2002 of “defensive coach assaulted by drunk student in shower.”

    You think, really, that Paterno would have treated it any differently if there had been an assault to go with the eyewitness account? Yes, any number of us would stop an assault in progress, especially of an innocent – but if it was somebody who had power over you, over everything in your world and you understood might be able to destroy you despite any actions you might take regardless of whether they are right? Sandusky had that kind of sway – thanks to the cover given by Paterno. McQueary had to think for a moment about whether or not anybody would believe him if he assaulted the guy, whether anybody would back him up, whether the kid would be hushed up with money and made to go away while McQueary was sent to jail for assault. Whether a random football player would be trotted out as an eyewitness to McQueary’s baseless assault.

  3. 6

    Pat, I’ll give McQueary the benefit of the doubt for the moment. He was shocked and revolted to see Sandusky raping a child. He fled. But why in the hell didn’t he call the police? He witnessed a child being brutalized, and he called his father. His father didn’t call the police, but told school administrators (the next day), who proceeded to do jack-shit about it. Is college football so important that people are willing to turn a blind eye to pedophilia and rape?

  4. 7

    I don’t agree that the grad student should have assaulted the coach when he saw him assaulting the child. (Is assault ever a good idea?) I just don’t understand his doing nothing except tell the head coach! I don’t understand his NOT trying to stop the assault and I don’t understand his not calling the cops and Child Services. I don’t understand his going to work for an organization that he KNOWS has covered up child rape in the past. I don’t get it. What goes through the mind of a person who has witnessed an assault on a child and goes along with hiding it? Especially sexual assault, which is known by any sensible person to have an extremely high rate of recurrence and woefully low rate of reporting by victims. This man (a grad student is not a kid) is as much guilty of covering up the assault and facilitating further assaults as was Paterno and the others. He, more so that they, KNEW what had happened.

  5. 8

    Wow, pat. A person with the courage of his convictions would be able to do both — report the rape AND stop the attack. It’s not like there would be *less* evidence proving he’d done it at that point. It would have saved the boy from continued violation, and it would have resulted in the same evidence being available to take him down.

    But hey, how many boys had he raped at that point? What’s one more, right? Why stop him before he’s finished, that’ll surely just make him maaaad!

  6. Pat

    I will go away as the author of the blog requests, I only provide one post of clarification.

    Paterno created the climate that led to McQueary even for a moment doubting what he should do, or that he should do it. Paterno continued it by doing nothing.

    Paterno continues to benefit any time McQueary is paraded out as the one truly at fault instead of Paterno, when Paterno created the climate that led to Sandusky having free rein, and McQueary doubting what was right.

    Yes, McQueary is a failed, broken and messed up human being who didn’t do the right thing.


    I don’t want to see Paterno apologists using McQueary as cover when McQueary speaks loudly to Paterno’s power. Yes, McQueary is culpable, responsible, and should not be at any position where his fouled judgement can hold sway. Paterno contributed to the fouling of that judgement in the first place, and should not in any way benefit from it as any kind of cover for his own inaction and creation of that climate.

    Now I go away.

  7. 11

    From the grand jury’s findings:

    Approximately one and a half weeks later [after reporting to Paterno], the graduate student was called to a meeting with Penn State Athletic Director Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz (“Schultz”). The graduate assistant reported to Curley and Schultz that he had witnessed what he believed to be Sandusky having anal sex with a boy in the Lasch Building showers. Curley and Schultz assured the graduate assistant that they would look into it and determine what further action they would take. Paterno was not present for this meeting.

    The graduate assistant heard back from Curley a couple of weeks later. He was told that Sandusky’s keys to the locker room were taken away and that the incident had been reported to The Second Mile. The graduate assistant was never questioned by University police and no other entity conducted an investigation until he testified in Grand Jury in December, 2010. The Grand Jury finds the graduate assistant’s testimony to be extremely credible.

    Curley testified that the graduate assistant reported to them that “inapropriate conduct” or activity that made him “uncomfortable” occurred in the Lasch Building shower in March 2002. Curley specifically denied that the graduate assistant reported anal sex or anything of a sexual nature whatsoever and termed the conduct as merely “horsing around”. When asked whether the graduate assistant had reported “sexual conduct” “of any kind” by Sandusky, Curley answered “No” twice. When asked if the graduate assistant had reported “anal sex between Jerry Sandusky and this child,” Curley testified, “Absolutely not.”

    I suggest reading the entire document, which is 23 pages. PDF link

  8. 12

    I kind of see Pat’s point. I don’t forgive McQueary’s actions – like everyone who knew about this and didn’t call the cops, he should at rock-bottom minimum be fired, and if there turns out to be criminal charges for him I won’t complain. In particular, in my (so far, casual) perusal of the story, I haven’t seen any criticism of McQueary that I consider excessive. Like the man said, “these things should be simple.”

    On the other hand, when things like this don’t appear simple to someone, it’s usually because the person has been surrounded by a sick culture that twists his perception of right and wrong. (Well, that or the person is an evil fuck, which doesn’t seem to be the case for McQueary.) Before I heard this story, I wouldn’t have thought that college athletics was a sufficiently fanatical culture to twist people that way, but apparently it is, and that’s the fault of the people who had power in that community.

    McQueary should be held responsible for his own actions, but what he did (or rather, failed to do) is also a discredit to the leadership he got.

  9. 13

    When I heard there were protests at Penn State I figured it was a lynch mob assembling to kill Paterno, and as many of the upper lever level coaches they could lay hands on. I expected multiple arsons too. I expected angry mobs of nerds to beat football players just for the lulz to destroy the corrupt system of college football. A full scale orgy of violence that would make Penn State drop out of football forever.

    But no. They were supporting Paterno. Should have expected it. I haven’t seen any Catholics burning down their bishops’ houses.

    I kinda like football, but football should not be mixed up with academics. Football scholarship money should go to poor kids with real talent. College football should be sold off and privatized to make a minor league system like baseball has. I would so totally drive to Beaumont (there is no “mont” in Beaumont, it was an oil-filled salt dome that didn’t flood in hurricanes) to see the Beaumont Bargers play the Navasota Bobcats in some hard hitting minor league NFL action.

    Football needs to GTFO our colleges. Privatize college football, and let universities be universities.

  10. 14

    If you were surprised that the riots were in favor of Paterno, you haven’t been to Penn State. He’s like a god there. The community just can’t comprehend that he could fuck up on a such a colossal scale. That’s what happens when you have an all-pervasive cult of personality. Paterno and Spanier needed to be fired. But why hasn’t McQueary been fired? That makes no sense at all.

  11. 15

    What the hell is wrong with people shrugging their shoulders at child abuse and not calling the police?
    How should I ever trust any educational institution with my own children if they obviously care so little.
    You don’t tell your boss, dad, priest, bishop, cat or dog and wait what they’re doing.
    What’s so hard to understand about that?
    You know, it’s one of those easy black-and-white things:
    You stop at a red light and you call the police when you witness a rape.

  12. 16

    On McQueary- it should be noted that it’s barely possible he thought he *had* taken it to the higher authorities. “School administrators” in this case included Schultz, who oversaw campus police.
    In addition, it should be noted there was a previous investigation into Sandsuski. The rumor mill notes that this investigation (which as far as I know did not result in charges) immediately proceeded his retirement as assistant coach (at the age of 55).

    Here’s the take home messages: If you witness a rape, stop it if it’s safe for you to do so, call the police, and FOLLOW UP. Because generally, the police are kinda worthless.

    Also, as a grad student at penn state, I will mention that the university firing McQueary sends a pretty clear message- “don’t come to US when you find out something wrong”

    The problem is partially the power allowed to accumulate with Big College Football, but also the culture of hyper masculinity and celebrated brutality that are so wound up in the sport that they can’t be separated out. I can’t for the life of me understand why “I’m a football fan” isn’t seen like “I’m a dogfighting fan, except with people” or even “yay for culture that turns people into sexual predators!!”.
    Football, and any celebrated violence really, needs to GTFO of our society.

  13. 17

    Robert, Pat’s point was that McQueary was being “pilloried” when the blame should be put elsewhere. That hasn’t happened here or in any of the posts linked, making paragraphs of concern for someone who had an opportunity to stop what was happening and benefited from his own inaction rather disgusting, particularly in the absence of any mention of or concern for the actual victims.

  14. 18

    There’s a slippery slope argument here, and everyone is trying to stay off of it.

    The bottom of that slippery slope is the acknowledgment that the whole environment — extending out far beyond Penn State and sports — is totally fucked up. Which is easy for me (and I gather) PZ to admit, in my case because I don’t give a rat’s ass for organized sports to begin with. We, as a society, privilege whole groups and excuse what they do because of the wonderful things they do. Like win football games. Like “create jobs.” And we don’t tolerate those who rock the boat (yes, I’m nodding to Pat in this. Sorta.)

    But that’s not the only slippery slope. The slippery slope is the problem that when something is everyone’s responsibility, it’s nobody’s responsibility. When you have enough people “taking responsibility” for something, the net result is nothing but empty words. Janet Reno “took responsibility” for Waco. Wow. Responsibility for the torture regime and countless violations of American law and civil rights was so widespread that everyone gets a pass. Liberty and justice for some (as in, liberty for some and justice for others.)

    And that’s what we’re seeing play out. We need a scapegoat, so the one person in the whole fucked up mess who at least did something in the right direction, even if he didn’t do all that he should, is the first to get the ax. Kiss that career goodbye, and not because McCleary didn’t do what he should but for the one thing anyone did right. Which, as Pat observed, is the message we convey to the next person in a similar spot: you can get a couple of column inches about how you did the right thing. Take comfort in it, because we’ll crucify you. The best-case scenario after that is you cut your own throat so we can admire you as a martyr.

    The slippery slope is everyone trying to get away from dealing with the fact that the whole culture is hypocritical, and that the rot is so widespread that there is no immediate solution. Paterno is still around for the season, and will retire with his record intact — because, as the riots tell us, he’s the true embodiment of what our society values. He’s beyond accountability for anything except his win/loss record. And that’s the way we like it, but we’re too chickenshit to even come right out and admit it.

    If a few worthless inner-city boys from time to time are the price of greatness, then the price is cheap [1].

    NB: those who know me may observe that the language in the is comment is rather stronger than I normally allow myself to use. Infer what you will.

    [1] What, you thought that comment was about football? Well, maybe — but remember that I’m a child of the 60s and remember Vietnam.

  15. 19

    Actually, D. C., my problem is with people who treat rape as an institutional problem rather than a crime with victims. This extends quite fully to those institutions that encourage that to happen.

  16. 20

    Stephanie, the depressing part is that it’s so tied up into a hairball that no matter what thread you pull on it just won’t come undone.

    Yes, it’s a crime with victims. I understand this personally. And then you ask, what can we do other than comfort the victims? At which point you run into the hairball of institutional resistance to doing anything about rape (and other abuses, for that matter, but leave them for another day.)

    Rape is a crime with victims. It’s also an institutional problem. There’s not only room to view it both ways but a crying need to deal with both aspects.

    An uncle of mine, in response to the old saying about draining swamps and alligators, replied that sometimes you have to take time from fighting fires to turn off the gas. I can’t buy that WRT rape — the victims need help now, not in the great bye-and-bye when the systemic issues are solved. But I certainly won’t complain about someone shutting off the mains, either.

    And, sometimes, I lose my cool and vent a bit.

  17. 22

    […] Freethought Blogs coverage of this disgrace comes from Pharyngula: What? It’s not just Catholic priests? and This is why I hate college football programs, Digital Cuttlefish: Am I Making Myself Clear?, Commradde Physioprof: Does Penn State Actively Condone The Rape Of Children?, and Almost Diamonds: Understanding Penn State. […]

  18. 23

    Something needs to be made clear about McQueary: he wasn’t some kid. He was a 28 year old grown man. That’s important. He isn’t some scared kid. He was old enough, by far, to know better. If he was going to call anyone but the police, he should have done it that night and then called the police.

    He left the scene while a child was being raped. I don’t feel bad for him. He deserves all the blame he is getting. He either acted with extreme poor judgement which let a child rapist roam free for nearly 10 years, or he made a calculated decision to cover his own ass for the sake of his career at the expense of the child he left in the shower.

  19. 24

    Well, he’s now apparently receiving death threats. Nobody deserves those. But the criticism, yes. He was not the only person to fail catastrophically at being a good human being here, but he still failed.

  20. 25

    Whilst the actual McQueary did indeed fail in his responsibilities as a citizen and deserves to pay the price for that failure, DC is correct that we need as a society to make it easier for hypothetical McQueary’s in the future to do the right thing. That means very strict whistleblower protection laws.
    As much as we would wish that he had done the right thing, our system is not weighted in favor of rewarding the hero in these situations.

  21. 26

    Whistleblower? This is still a criminal, not institutional, matter.

    And calling 911 is not an act of heroism. It doesn’t take heroes to save these kids. All it takes is someone not acting as though coming across a rape in progress presents some sort of moral dilemma. No shit, there are consequences for reporting. There are far more consequences for not doing it. They just get dumped back on the heads of the already vulnerable.

  22. 27

    Oh, McQueary deserves much of the blame, but no one deserves death threats over this. Hell, some of the heat seems to have increased on McQueary in the wake of the Paterno firing. Stupid Paterno supporters seem to be blaming McQueary for Paterno being fired.

    The whole thing is a mess. The whole lot of them should be fired, them being the entire coaching staff that was apart of Penn State from 2002. Recall that Sanduskey was barred from bringing children onto campus in 2002, and he was told to not shower with children in 1998 I believe. While they may not be legally culpable, the abuses must have been known. And they were covered up.

    And as for McQueary being a whistleblower: I don’t think he can be considered that. He did the minimum really. He was just covering his ass. He dumped it onto Paterno and then Paterno dumped it onto the AD. Nothing was done to protect kids, or to actually get some justice. It was just done to protect the football program.

    But it should be said that in our society, we have this insane double standard. We want corruption outed, but if you out the corruption, you are a snitch. This is partially how a culture of corruption is maintained. The other part is the Iron Law of Institutions. In this case, it is the Iron Law of Institutions that seems to have kept every quite.

  23. 28

    @ Stephanie Zvan:

    Then perhaps I misspoke, because I don’t agree with the point you ascribe to Pat at all.

    More generally: in the public schools (at least in Maryland, but I suspect elsewhere, too), if a school employee has evidence of child abuse, the employee is specifically and legally required not to talk to his or her superiors about it, but instead to contact the authorities immediately. I thought the law was strangely specific when I first learned it, but it is so exactly the opposite of the tragic moral errors in this case that it makes much more sense now.

    In other words, there is a long-established model of a policy that would have gotten McQueary or any other witness of these crimes to do the right thing. Duke decided, as an institution, to use the exact opposite policy. And that is frickin’ messed up.

  24. 32

    You are wrong. Joe Paterno didn’t ‘just do nothing’, he PRAYED for those young boys. See…now doesn’t that just make you all warm and fuzzy, and the victims all better!!

  25. 33

    I listen to sports radio in New England and I have been pleasantly surprised that none of the radio hosts and almost none of the callers have tried to defend Penn States handling of the situation. Almost every person says that the person responsible and everyone who actively hid the facts should be in jail.

    Penn State fans act very much like a secular religion. With every religion it is heresy to question the messiah. McQueary should have called the police. Once he hesitated he might have been hesitant to accuse the messiah’s assistant. Would they believe him? If you look at all of the people who are demonstrating for Joe P. I would’t be surprised if he would have been accused of lying and had death threats against him if he pushed it. I can intellectually understand why someone would be hesitant but that is still a very poor excuse for not doing anything.

    One report I heard on sports radio said that the local police was notified at one point but they also did nothing. If the police were part of the cover up, it makes the situation even worse.

  26. 34

    Yes, any number of us would stop an assault in progress, especially of an innocent – but if it was somebody who had power over you, over everything in your world and you understood might be able to destroy you despite any actions you might take regardless of whether they are right?

    Every. Single. Fucking. Time.

    If protecting the child is on one side of a scale, and protecting my “world” is on the other side, there’s simply no question. The weight of protecting the child drops that side of the scale through the floor. No excuses.

  27. 35

    Sometimes people freeze when they’re caught by surprise. When he saw someone he respected doing something terrible, he froze. If you asked him a few minutes later when he’d had a chance to think about it, I’m sure he would regret it. I’d like to think that everyone here would take action, but you don’t know how you’d react until you’re put in the situation.

    His reactions after the fact cannot be defended. By reporting it to someone, he was marginally better than the people who actively covered it up but that doesn’t help the victims. Both actively and passively helping a criminal are bad but I tend to put more blame on people who actively help. This is in no way defending his actions, I just tend to put more blame on the higher up’s who heard his story and not only ignored it but actively supressed it.

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