Sandusky, Paterno, Rick Reilly, & Me

Marcus Williams thinks that when Rick Reilly went hard on Paterno, he may have let the rest of us off too easy.


I let a child molester go on molesting when I had direct knowledge of his abuse. I knew the man had joined a family bowling league to be around children, and after gaining the trust of one family, been given the opportunity to take a 12-yr. old boy on his first skiing trip. Over the course of those few days, he inappropriately touched and fondled the boy, including touching his genitals through underwear when he thought the boy was sleeping. The victim, not asleep, turned over, and the touching stopped.

I knew of all this, but reported nothing.

I knew of all this, but reported nothing. Not only would this offender go on to abuse other kids, but future victims were not so lucky when it came to him giving up and not going further. I don’t know the details of other cases, but I found out many years later that he either got caught or was finally reported and went to prison for his crimes. I was relieved, but still carry guilt about knowing what this man was capable of, and doing nothing to protect more children from being victimized.


One of my all-time favorite sportswriters, Rick Reilly, recently wrote a column, The Sins of the Father, about Penn State Coach Joe Paterno’s legacy. In it, Reilly calls himself an “idiot”, “stooge”, and “chump”, among other things, for having earlier defended Paterno’s “true legacy” when the Sandusky scandal broke. He regretfully owns up to playing a part in the hagiography of Joe Paterno, meaning the writing of his deeds that made him out to be a saint. The Freeh Report on Paterno removed Reilly’s blinders, so he’s not defending any part of Paterno of his legacy anymore. From that column:

I talked about Paterno’s “true legacy” in all of this. Here’s his true legacy: Paterno let a child molester go when he could’ve stopped him. He let him go and then lied to cover his sinister tracks. He let a rapist go to save his own recruiting successes and fundraising pitches and big-fish-small-pond hide.

Here’s a legacy for you. Paterno’s cowardice and ego and fears allowed Sandusky to molest at least eight more boys in the years after that 1998 incident[…]

I tweeted that, yes, Paterno should be fired, but that he was, overall, “a good and decent man.” I was wrong. Good and decent men don’t do what Paterno did. Good and decent men protect kids, not rapists.

Reilly’s thesis is that people who fail to stop monstrous acts when they have an opportunity to do so, by reporting the person committing them, are themselves monsters who share in the culpability of those acts, even if they did not commit them or directly abet them. It’s a tempting and common point of view, almost impossible to resist when the monstrous acts occur on a large scale, or when the people who suffer most are people we care about and feel connected to. I have a hard time resisting it myself, because it feels true more often than not. It seems like common sense that monstrous acts or cover-ups require monsters to commit them, so once I’ve identified the monsters, I can direct my anger toward them, secure in the knowledge that I’m not a monster. This kind of evil is an “other” thing, not a me thing. My conscience is protected by the knowledge that such monsters are aberrations of humanity, not people that I could have anything in common with.

The logic that calls [Paterno’s] ilk monsters for failing to protect future victims once there was so much as a suspicion of abuse would make me a monster as well. Am I?

But…I did not report a child molester who went on to abuse other victims after the 12 yr. old that I knew about. My conscience is still safe from knowing I’m not like Jerry Sandusky, convicted child rapist, but the logic that condemns Paterno and others (e.g., McQueary, PSU administrators, and possibly others) for “doing nothing” to end the abuse condemns me as well. The logic that calls his ilk monsters for failing to protect future victims once there was so much as a suspicion of abuse would make me a monster as well. Am I?

I was the 12 yr. old.


I don’t think I’m a monster for not reporting my abuse when it happened, and I don’t think many people get furious at victims for failing to report, even though the “protect future victims” logic would seem to apply just as much. I think my failure to report was much more the norm than the exception, and that the victims who do go to the police (or urge their parents to let them) are the ones with exceptional courage. It may be the obvious right thing to do from an uninvolved perspective, or even in the victim’s mind, but that doesn’t make it easy or the sort of action that any average person with a decent sense of right and wrong would choose to take.

I had my reasons for not reporting, though I can’t say I analyzed them until long after I was abused. Denial played a large part. I had a hard time believing it had happened, because I was 12 and thought this sort of thing happened to little kids. I knew what happened was wrong, but since it didn’t last long and didn’t involve penetration or other unambiguously sexual acts, I wasn’t sure it “counted”. For all I knew, I was the first and only victim, so it’s not like I thought I could send this guy to prison for life if I just told somebody.

I also kept it to myself because I didn’t want to hurt my parents. In particular, it was my mom who bowled in that family league with me, so she knew the guy as well as I did (which obviously turned out not to be well) and didn’t have any problem letting me go spend the weekend with him. I thought if I told her, she would forever blame herself, and I didn’t want that.

As years went by, I kept the incident mostly buried in my memory for a long time. I eventually told some trusted friends, including girlfriends, and much later (in my 30’s) I finally talked about it with therapists and eventually told my dad and sister. Mom died before I opened up, and while I wish I’d not kept it buried for so long, I can’t say I regret that she never knew. I never did go to the police, though. Within a few years of being molested, I had forgotten my abuser’s name, so even if I’d resolved to contact authorities many years later, I couldn’t have told them who he was, or where they might find him.

“How the hell could someone not tell when they know abuse is occurring?!”…whatever someone’s reasons, they are not as hard to come by as you think.

I share these reasons not to excuse my failure to report, but to give some insight into the kind of thinking (and feeling) that leads someone not to report. I imagine other victims who never report can relate to some of my reasons, but I’m sure each person is unique and has their own blend of reasons and feelings, whether they end up reporting or not. I know it’s a common feeling to wonder, “How the hell could someone not tell when they know abuse is occurring?!”, so my point is that whatever someone’s reasons, they are not as hard to come by as you think.

I’m sure that there will be some readers out there (especially on the Internet) who are so moralistic and self-righteously confident about what they would do with knowledge of sexual abuse, that their sympathy for me being a victim would end with my failure to ever report it to authorities. Most people give victims a pass on that, though, and if you’ve read much coverage of the Sandusky story, I doubt you’ve seen many people berating his victims for not coming forward, or not coming forward soon enough. That rage has been saved for the non-victims who suspected or knew, and “did nothing”. That’s the prevailing attitude in the Reilly piece about Paterno. I’ve heard many other people express that same attitude, though few have done it with Reilly’s flair. He is, after all, still one of my favorite writers.

I get the outrage, I understand it, and it makes a lot of sense. I even share some of it. But…I don’t buy into the narrative that paints everyone who covered up or failed to go straight to the cops as monsters. I blame my resistance to this narrative on some things I read in college, which unlike so much else that I read there, had a profound enough impact on me to stick in my brain.


Four specific examples come to mind that bear on my willingness to consider Paterno or other non-reporters to be monsters, rather than ordinary people who made the same sorts of moral decisions most people would make, but with monstrous consequences. While these examples stick in my memory, I don’t pretend to be an up-to-date scholar on any of them, so you’re getting an undergrad level synopsis, twenty or so years after I studied them. I encourage you to conduct your own study and draw your own conclusions, but here’s how I remember them:

1. The “banality of evil”

I think it was for a sociology class that one of the reading assignments was Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt. Arendt was a Jew who fled Germany during Hitler’s rise to power (thanks, Google, for that refresher). This book contained her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who the way I remember it, was the main bureaucrat responsible for organizing the Holocaust. While the “Final Solution” may not have been his idea, he figured out the logistics of running the trains, how the concentration camps ran, how to take property from Jews, and so on. Monstrous, monstrous stuff.

…it does not take an obvious monster distinguished by charisma or evil genius to commit atrocities. Any ol’ Schmo can do it.

What stuck from that book was the concept—and phrase—“banality of evil”. It resulted from Arendt’s impression of Eichmann. She expected to see an obvious monster, sort of an evil genius accomplice to Hitler. Instead, Eichmann struck her as ordinary, not very bright, and not much of an ideologue. He was ambitious in a career way, but basically, a boring bureaucrat. His work made him one of the worst war criminals of all time, but the man was banal. (If that’s not an everyday word to you, synonyms include common, ordinary, undistinguished.)

This banality of evil that Arendt described did not diminish the horror or scope of Eichmann’s crimes, and in fact added a scary new twist: it does not take an obvious monster distinguished by charisma or evil genius to commit atrocities. Any ol’ Schmo can do it.

2. Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority.

Around the same time as the Eichmann trial, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram recruited subjects for a “learning” experiment. In each test, one subject was designated the “teacher” and one the “learner”. The teacher’s job was to teach the learner some simple word pairs, and administer an increasingly severe series of shocks to the learner if they made mistakes.

The experiment was rigged, so the real subject was always the teacher, and the learner was a confederate called “Mr. Wallace”, a nice old man with a heart condition who was a terrible learner. The subjects were separated so they couldn’t see each other, and also so Mr. Wallace’s recorded reactions to being shocked could be the same for every subject.

As Mr. Wallace kept making mistakes, most subjects continued to increase the punishing shocks despite very audible sounds of pain and protest from the learner. Although the subjects displayed clear discomfort at what they were doing and often asked to stop, an authority in the form of the “experimenter” in the white lab coat urged them to continue. Not only did most subjects continue past the point of inflicting pain on Mr. Wallace, but they continued past the point where there was banging on the wall by Mr. Wallace refusing to go on, and in many cases, continued all the way to administering the highest level shock after Mr. Wallace had stopped making any sounds at all.

The real consequences of their decision to obey authority hadn’t caused any harm, but at the time they obeyed, they didn’t know that.

At the conclusion of the “teaching”, all subjects were informed of the deception and to their great relief, given a chance to shake hands with Mr. Wallace who was alive and unharmed. The real consequences of their decision to obey authority hadn’t caused any harm, but at the time they obeyed, they didn’t know that. They not only inflicted pain but followed orders all the way past the point of apparently killing the nice stranger.

The subject pool in the Milgram experiments were ordinary everyday people. Banal. All that kept them from being accessories to an atrocity was the fact that it was a rigged experiment, but since they didn’t know that at the time, they showed themselves capable of “just following orders” to the point of causing harm or even death. Up until these experiments (and even after for many people), “just following orders” was considered a pretty bogus defense, because surely anyone who would commit such atrocities must be a monster, not a respectable person like the rest of us. Right?

3. Zimbardo’s prison experiment

In the early 1970’s, Philip Zimbardo led an experiment at Stanford University to study the causes of conflicts between prisoners and guards. A bunch of students were recruited to participate and arbitrarily divided into two groups: prisoners and guards. The study was conducted in a mock prison in an on-campus basement.

Within a short time, the guards became very abusive toward the prisoners. Though not allowed to inflict direct physical harm, they came up with punishments like forcing the prisoners to sleep on hard floors without mattresses, solitary confinement, and forced nudity. The prisoners, though not bound by any obligation to continue participation in the experiment, continued anyway, and suffered for it. Things got so bad that the study was ended on Day 6 instead of the planned two week duration.

It was another case of normal people behaving monstrously.

Whatever factors led to the guards being so cruel—and there are competing theories on that—it’s implausible that it happened because by a bad luck of the draw, all the subjects who were designated as guards happened to be out-of-the-ordinary, immoral monsters. It was another case of normal people behaving monstrously.

4. Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was attacked and eventually killed while on the way home late at night in New York. The investigation and later research determined that the attack lasted at least a half hour during which time dozens of people heard her screaming for help. The attacker even fled at one point, then returned in a few minutes to finish her off. Nobody called the police.

The incident gave rise to a body of research about the so-called “Bystander Effect”, which describes the tendency of people not to call for help or report crimes in progress, even when they know it’s happening. The body of research and theories around it have probably expanded since my undergrad exposure to it, but I remember a few of the interpretations about why this effect could happen. One was that when someone is aware of a crime where they know or believe many other people are, too, it’s easy to assume someone else will do the reporting. Another is that if you can see the other witnesses and no one is doing anything, it’s easy to conclude that nothing is seriously wrong, since somebody would be doing something if there was.

Failing to report may have monstrous consequences, but it’s not just empathy-lacking, ass-covering, immoral monsters who fail to report…it’s people like you and me.

There are many contributing factors to the Bystander Effect, but research has demonstrated time and again that normal, law-abiding citizens are more than capable of allowing crimes or other kinds of wrongdoing to persist instead of taking the initiative to intervene or alert the proper authorities. Failing to report may have monstrous consequences, but it’s not just empathy-lacking, ass-covering, immoral monsters who fail to report. More often than not, it’s people like you and me.


The moral imperative that Paterno and assorted others at Penn State failed to follow was, “Report wrongdoing”. With hindsight, it’s easy to see how awful the consequences of that failure were, but I think they were following another moral imperative that’s less obvious after the fact, but a part of most people’s routine moral decision-making: “Protect your in-group.” In less honorable phrasing, that latter imperative could be called, “Don’t snitch.”

There is a steep social price to be paid for routinely reporting people you know to authorities (i.e., “snitching”) for every misdeed you witness. It’s a surefire way to alienate everyone you know and be excluded from all social groups, be they friends, family, co-workers, teammates, or whatever social group you can think of. Consider the example of calling the cops on someone who has gotten behind the wheel after a few drinks.

Let’s say you remember the rule of thumb from Driver’s Ed. (or traffic school) that before operating a vehicle, a driver should allow one hour to pass per alcoholic beverage they have consumed. I submit that for most people who do any amount of socializing that involves the consumption of alcohol, it is commonplace to witness people breaking that rule. Not even counting the cases where you’re the driver, consider how likely you are to call the cops on someone you know if you saw them getting behind the wheel after failing to abide by that hour per drink guideline. Ignore whether they seem rip-roaring drunk; the question is whether if you see that hour per drink rule being broken, would you call (or have you called) the cops, even for a minor violation like the driver getting behind the wheel a half hour after knocking back one drink?

As soon as I fail to report…that moral decision is locked in, regardless of the consequences.

I think most people don’t report in that situation. I know I haven’t. I may have attempted to persuade someone to wait a while longer in a few extreme instances, but I’ve never called the cops on someone I knew for breaking the hour per drink rule. As soon as I fail to report—either through consciously deciding not to or seeing it as not my problem and hoping for the best (Bystander Effect)—that moral decision is locked in, regardless of the consequences. Possible consequences include:

The driver…

  • gets wherever they’re going without incident, with no damage to persons or property.
  • gets pulled over and cited for DUI or DWI, but no damage to persons or property.
  • gets into a one-vehicle accident, killing him/herself.
  • crashes into another car, killing its lone occupant.
  • crashes into a bus full of orphans on their way to get picked up by adoptive parents, killing all the orphans.
  • who is also a commercial pilot, heads straight to work and the plane crashes into a bus full of orphans, killing all the orphans and over 200 passengers. The crash is later attributed to pilot error.

Lucky for me, and most people who routinely make that same choice, the only consequence I’ve ever had happen was the first one: none. If the more severe consequences were to occur, I’m sure my conscience would range from feeling troubled, to barely being able to live with myself. In that last scenario, if it became public that I had done nothing to stop my friend/spouse/whatever from flying a commercial airliner after seeing them drinking, I imagine the public would be calling for my head, and understandably so.

In each scenario, I could risk the social and legal consequences of reporting someone I know for a potential risk of public endangerment, or I can do the socially easy thing and hope nothing bad happens because it usually doesn’t. It may sound silly to compare a friend who got home safe after driving with a few drinks in them to a friend who crashed a plane and killed hundreds of people, but the moral choice is essentially the same, so the consequences are just a matter of scale. It’s only with hindsight that the same fundamental decision not to report looks either inconsequential, or monstrous.


I think “Don’t snitch” is a more powerful force in our moral decision-making than “Report wrongdoing.”

I think “Don’t snitch” is a more powerful force in our moral decision-making than “Report wrongdoing.” The latter imperative exists, but it’s much easier to do to someone we don’t know or who isn’t in our in-group (family, team, school, business, etc.) than to someone who is. Who are you more likely to report for shoplifting that you just witnessed – some teen you don’t know, or a teen that also happens to be your son/daughter? I think most people wouldn’t even report the unknown teen (“not my problem”), but I think it would be the rare parent who would bring it the cops on their own kid. We protect our own, even when they disappoint us.

What were some of the “Don’t snitch” pressures on Joe Paterno? I can’t read his mind, but it’s not hard to imagine that he figured the consequence of a long-time coach and pillar of the PSU community being exposed as a child rapist would cause not only the football program but the university’s reputation to unravel, and overshadow any good that been accomplished over several decades. Even assuming the football program was nearest and dearest to his heart, a scandal of this magnitude would tarnish everyone at Penn State University, most of whom had nothing to do with Sandusky. Here’s the kicker—he was right.

Not right to cover up, but right about the consequences to reputations and legacies and the university’s good name when the truth came out. Look not just at halos getting painted over on campus murals and talk of taking down the Paterno statue removing a Paterno statue, but the looming threat of giving Penn State the “death penalty”. Paterno is literally dead already and Sandusky is awaiting sentencing, so punishing the institution at this point has a torch and pitchfork appeal, but the vast majority of punishees will be faculty, student body, and other innocents who don’t share any of the culpability for what Sandusky did. That’s why Paterno—and anyone in that same situation—would feel tremendous pressure to try to handle it some other way than just reporting to the authorities, letting it all become public, and let the chips fall where they may. It’s not easy to blow up your own house.

It’s not easy to blow up your own house.

It’s also not easy to turn informant on people you’ve trusted and had affection for, even if you’re 100% sure that they’ve done wrong, but how often do people feel that amount of certainty based on a second-hand report? McQueary reported (to Paterno) what he saw in the shower, but if someone told you that they saw your spouse or best friend committed some heinous act, and you didn’t see it with your own eyes, would you run to the cops with what you “knew”, or would you think it must have been a misunderstanding, that they didn’t see what they thought they saw, or maybe even have your suspicions, but convince yourself you could monitor them more closely or use your influence to keep them out of further trouble?


When Rick Reilly fell on his sword for having failed to recognize that Paterno was a monster, it probably had a cathartic effect, but it didn’t help one iota as far as preventing the next major athletic scandal, however it may happen to unfold. Unless this story drove Reilly out of the sportswriting business, I expect he’ll go right back to celebrating sports, franchises, and athletes, as sportswriters are wont to do, and none of it will feel wrong until the next time it’s discovered that all along, some celebrated person(s) were “dirty” all along. Sexual abuse, dog fighting, doping, gambling, cheating…it’s always something. If Reilly truly believes that part of what enables such moral failures to occur, with sometimes catastrophic results, is a culture that idolizes sports culture, then the morally correct action would be to get out of the business that celebrates it. Otherwise, calling himself out for being a sap in the Paterno case is just puffery.

I don’t in fact agree with the analysis that says college football had anything to do with this, or that Paterno’s status played an important part, or even that sportswriters who engaged in hagiography were complicit in allowing such terrible things to happen for so long. Those factors made it a sensational story, but were incidental to the crimes themselves. It doesn’t make much difference to a victim of sexual abuse whether their abuser was a big shot college football coach, or some guy who joined a family bowling league. For all I know, my abuser went on to abuse as many or more victims as Sandusky after I failed to report, and idolization of sports heroes had nothing to with it.

It’s the scale of the consequences that makes monsters out of people, not the decision.

The vast majority of us will never be in a Paterno-like position where the choice to call in the cops on “one of our own” is weighed against the damage it would do to a large institution that we helped build, and where we know that the wrongdoing was an aberration, but one that will overshadow anything else that was accomplished there. On a much smaller scale, though, most people encounter that kind of choice at least a few times in their life—sometimes frequently. I think it’s fundamentally the same kind of choice, and most people find it just as hard and unappealing to do the right thing as Paterno did. It’s the scale of the consequences that makes monsters out of people, not the decision.


You may think that what I’m getting at with all this is that Joe Paterno was just like us so we should forgive his terrible judgment regarding Sandusky and only remember the good stuff he did. I’m not saying that. The monstrous consequences of what Paterno did and failed to do are indisputable, and impossible to overlook. My interest is in preventive humility; by acknowledging my own everyday capacity for evil, I hope to be more likely to steer away from it. I am saying Paterno was not a monster, not because I want to protect his legacy, but because I think that’s a cop-out analysis that falsely reassures the rest of us that we would never make those kinds of moral misjudgments, as if we’d somehow anticipate the catastrophic consequences of our choices in time to avoid them. The other-izing of evil allows us to sustain the illusion that because we aren’t monsters like Paterno, we know we wouldn’t abet evil, kill Mr. Wallace, abuse prisoners, let Kitty Genovese get killed, or fail to prevent Jerry Sandusky from raping more kids. As comforting as that is to believe, experience and research suggest otherwise.


Image of paper chain courtesy of Shutterstock

About Marcus Williams

Marcus Williams writes what he knows, which is a lot about a little and not much about everything else.


  1. Reilly’s article also mentioned the Freeh report’s concern that there was discussion about Sandusky and what to do about the abuse. If this is the case, there is culpability on Paterno and the administration. It’s one thing to catch wind of something and another to discuss and analyze how an institution is going to handle a “situation”. Of course, there is so much speculation going on since we have no idea what was going on in the hearts and minds Paterno and the administration.
    I’ll give Reilly a break on the fact that he’s publicly airing his feelings. As with feelings, they’ll need to be analyzed and properly placed. My hope is that this will change how he covers sports and to avoid the hero worship that goes on so much in this arena.
    Beyond that I really appreciate your analysis. We are in murky waters here and you have tried to clear them where so many other just stir it up.

    • I give Reilly a break, too. He remains one of my favorite sportswriters.

      I agree Paterno and administration are culpable here, and the more they knew, the worse their culpability. The insight I’m hoping for is that their judgment wasn’t all that unusual, even if the consequence were, and by acknowledging that, have a better chance of improving my own judgment when I don’t have hindsight to make it obvious. That’s the hope, anyway.

      I don’t hold out hope that sports can be covered (by anyone, not just Reilly) without some degree of hero worship. That’s not just sports, it’s celebrity. Build ’em up. Tear ’em down. Rinse. Repeat.

      My problem with the hero worship explanation in this story is that an awful lot of sexual abuse has happened and been covered up, and I expect will continue to do so, without any element of hero worship involved. It’s not like a big shot football program is a necessary or sufficient condition to give rise to this kind of abuse. It just happened to happen this time in such a program, but I don’t see how taking a wrecking ball to Penn State will make a whit of difference to sexual abuse generally. I think a whole bunch of people who had nothing to do with any of it at Penn State are going to suffer on behalf of the people who did, and guys who join family bowling leagues looking for victims will keep right on doing that.

      • It’s not a necessary condition, but I think high-profile D-I sports can be a sufficient condition (especially one as culturally ingrained as PSU’s). It’s a step in reminding predators that, no matter their status, they’re not invincible. It’s also a wake-up call to other programs across the country to re-evaluate the role of sports on their campus. Love the discussion though.

  2. I admit I’ve been largely avoiding them, but IMO this is one of the better analyses of the thinking and failure to report or to act on reports in the whole Penn State mess. Where DO we draw the line between “All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for [people] of good will to do nothing” and becoming a nation of sanctimonious finger-pointers monitoring one another’s ever move?

    Lots to think about here – thank you.

    And, for what it’s worth, I’m so sorry that happened to twelve-year-old you. That just sucks.

    • Thank you, SherryH. I truly do feel lucky to have been spared the horrors of the extent and duration that other victims of abuse have suffered, but I stopped trying to pretend it didn’t “count” a long time ago. It was enough that it’s something that 30 years later, I’m still sometimes writing and thinking about the impact it had on me. So, my 12 yr. old self thanks you.

    • I think seeing it as sanctimony is part of the problem that leads to the negative connotations of people who report wrongdoing. Recognizing that reporting is pro-social and not anti-social in many instances is important. Ethics apply to our in-group as much as they do to strangers, and we should hold each other accountable as such.

  3. There are a number of implications from this piece which lead people to think in different ways – and even rationalise in different ways. There are four valid and well trodden Social Psychology roads – Inter personal perception and the Banal – Conformity to authority – Group Membership and roles – SEP, It;s somebody else’s problem and I’ll stand by. There is also a tendency when analysing cases like this to add them up, or even worse multiply them, as a justification for inaction.

    However, these patterns of inertia to doing the right thing are well known, and as such they have as far as is possible been designed out of Reporting Procedures and Training. They may apply to an individual acting alone, but when it comes to Institutions safeguards against these Inertias are supposed to be in place. In fact there were in place at PSU – they were simply ignored!

    There are many names that keep getting linked to PSU and the Sandusky Scandal – and one that keeps being glossed over and not mentioned loudly is Vicky Triponey – “that lady in Old Main”, as JoePa called her. She was the PSU vice president for student affairs who stood up to Paterno and paid the price.

    As she has observed, Paterno’s “Grand Experiment” was a fraud – Paterno had his pedestal – he manipulated the University round his team, his winningest status. There is of course argument that Ms Triponey is for some a Power Crazed Gorgon who had to be gotten rid of….. and yet….

    Whilst some attack her personally, I can’t find anyone disputing the facts of PSU supporting Paterno’s view that Football Players got treated differently to other students when it came to disciplinary matters. Paterno created an island within PSU.

    One of her more interesting observations reads;

    “We were not really well connected in the profession of student affairs. We thought we did it better than anybody, so why would we spend our time going to a lot of professional conferences and learning how others are doing it if we do it better than anybody?”

    That applies to all of PSU and not just football. It indicates that the Mythology of PSU supremacy went far wider than Football. How that happened is not clear, and which came first. It reminds me of an old adage – “Blind Leaders are always in a hurry and never see a precipice until it’s too late”.

    Now have two Blind and Egotistical leaders dancing together and weigh up the risks. But oddly, those risk have been well known, documented and people even make quite a few bucks off the back of the advice provided to Institutions – auditing – advising – and acting as external eyes and ears to pick up the warnings. One has to repeatedly ask – why is it that at PSU all the safeguards failed?

    • There is also a tendency when analysing cases like this to add them up, or even worse multiply them, as a justification for inaction.

      Not sure if you mean to include my analysis in that group, but in case you do, please don’t confuse an explanation with a justification. For example, I stand by my points that ordinary people can commit atrocities, and that protecting in-groups is just a thing we humans do, but that’s descriptive, not a rationale for why either of those things are “justified”.

      • Marcus (LOL) I was making general observations about the subject – and not your views. If I had wanted to address you I would have! P^)

        I am aware of how people build “Post Hoc” structures to explain matters – and in this case, as with many others, you do get a multiplying of explanations and theories to explain away matters. Some will build defences and excuses from the psychology, and then use those structures to claim they were just conforming – a bystander – part of a group that normalised matters – and authority placed them in an intolerable position. Some end up needing four arms with four finders pointing in every direction away from themselves.

        I have been struck by Graham Spanier’s letter of 23 July – and how it flies in under the Radar of the NCAA sanctions. He makes great play of his Personal History – he’s a sociologist and therapist , been a board member of organisations that have dealt with children – and he also reports that he suffered physical abuse as a child. It’s significant. There is no way he would have NOT responded if he knew there were issues and reports.

        He writes (with his attorneys thumb prints all over) addressing the findings of the Freeh Report, and correcting what are seen as errors in understanding and interpretation.

        What does not get mentioned is how there was more than one failure – such as the Clery Violations traced back to 2002/2003 – PSU report there were no Sexual Assaults … and yet investigators uncovered 12/13 that had not been recorded correctly. PSU have a track record of failing to do the right thing – even when mandated.

        It’s odd, but that failure should have triggered a detailed review and given the time frame could well have caught Sandusky even then. Odd too, it seems that the people who should have been triggering that review into compliance with Federal Law were the Trustees and The President, Mr Spanier. There are many questions as to why it did not happen – and no doubt that will come out as time passes and yet more findings of other investigations are published. But – if Mr Spanier has a background in Sociology, he would have to have some awareness of how Institutions operate and the safeguards needed to prevent failure – well you would expect so. There has been so much study of the Psychology and Sociology of institutions that have failed, going back 50 years, one wonders why that research and the findings never impacted upon Old Main or informed internal practices, polices and procedures? I’ve been using that growing body of Research and Report Findings for 30 years. It’s proved ever so useful in designing systems and even training packages to institutions on how to do things right and avoid the bear traps.

        Then there is the odd matter of 2004 when Cynthia Baldwin, Chair of Trustees agreed with Spanier that greater oversight by the Trustees should be blocked. Now that has interesting Sociological Implications. The Trustees wanted greater oversight, but it was blocked by the Chair of Trustees and University President? There was some fear that if the oversight was introduced it could not later be reigned back … and the oversight matter arose from the inability of PSU to get Paterno to retire in 2003/4.

        Baldwin, A Supreme Court Justice, was later appointed Internal Counsel for PSU – and then there is the whole set of questions that arise from her attendance at the Grand Jury, Curly and Schultz stating she was their counsel, and yet she was there as counsel for PSU and not the men – and she failed to correct that error.

        That even leaves open the door for claims to be made that they had inadequate legal advice and representation at the Grand Jury – and that the failures are such that there has been lack of due process and they may escape trial for perjury … But then we have the Freeh report and the uncovering of documents that should have been handed over under Subpoena. It gets more labyrinthine by the minute. If there was inadequate counsel – or even failure – that does lead to questions about whether Curley and Schults should have pleaded the fifth and not said anything. Baldwin has claimed she did not hear either Shultz or Curley state she was their counsel – for the record – and yet she was sitting right next to both men, a place reserved for someone called The Attorney.

        Odd too how Baldwin has claimed she was present because matters affected the University, and yet on the same day a little old guy called JoePa gave evidence – and she was not persent – and JoePa had his own attorneys. If she was, as claimed present to hear evidence that was relevant to her client PSU, why was she absent when JoePa was on the stand – and she knew he would be – she received the Subpoena for JoePa and handed it over.

        Why Cynthia Baldwin was even present at the Grand Jury appearances of Shultz and Curley when she was not their counsel is another issue that requires answers. It’s been claimed that it was an error that came from a lack of experience in the mater of Grand Juries. It’s odd but the Ex-Supreme Court Justice, Attorney and Internal Counsel seems to have lacked the capacity to read a few law books, judge her own capacity in a field of law, and if in doubt phone a friend called external counsel and make sure all bases were covered?

        Oh – and she was there for Spanier too. Odd how her presence allowed the linking of 1998 and 2001 as questions were asked – and of course as Counsel for PSU she would have had to chat with the relevant officer of PSU – namely Spanier – about the implications for her employer. That was her job. Odd, but it either points to people doing and knowing things that were wrong – else there is such a level of incompetence at so many levels that there clearly needs to be a cultural shift to protect PSU, long term. The patterns play out, and as events shift it does not lead to dead ends, just more lines of inquiry.

        Some make it clear that Baldwin as an Attorney for PSU heard things in the Grand Jury that she was not allowed to make known to others, and so she could not alert Trustees …. but Spanier as a witness to the Grand Jury was under no such restriction and was obliged to report to all Trustees the risks that were becoming evident – and that was the risks to PSU not Spanier. Yet, he failed to let them know. Of course, as internal counsel for PSU Baldwin was oblige to provide the correct advice to Spanier and PSU, and there are so many questions as to why it is claimed that did not happen.

        Some worry about the Mythology around JoePa Paterno and sports. I’m wondering about the Pantheon of Mythology or incompetence that inhabited Old Main.

        It’s that old “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” question – what caused what and what is linked to what. Which came first the chicken or the roost with people sitting at home wondering what will come up next?

        Some wonder why the Freeh Report fails to mention so much? Well a Grand Jury is till sitting – there are ongoing Criminal Cases and Federal Investigations and so much more ….. but if you know where to look and what to read, It gets very interesting – and the questions just keep on coming!

  4. Ok, now that I’ve finished the whole piece and processed it a bit, I want to take issue with one of the central premises the article seems to employ: that all of us are faced with ethical dilemmas every day, and often choose not to act (especially as it relates to in-group “snitching”), therefore Paterno is not a “monster” for failing to report and that the iconic status of Paterno had nothing to do with the crime not being reported.

    There are several things that I think are wrong with that analysis. One is that “stop snitching” is a terrible way to conduct ourselves ethically. It’s ingrained in us as children and perpetuated throughout our lives, but that is a terrible moral philosophy. Preventing wrongdoing and doing right are synonymous. I don’t think it’s necessarily moralizing to suggest that “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” And that’s exactly what happened here — people did nothing, at multiple levels.

    Moreover, we have to consider the power that Paterno had to effect change. Not only was Paterno a man — he was a man in a leadership position, with great power, who was charged with protecting young people. As a person of authority, he had an obligation to act with the sort of “excess courage” that you discuss early in your piece; he was not a 12-year-old boy weighing the consequences of his actions against his shame. His level of duty to report was stronger than yours.

    I think that Penn State should self-inflict the “death penalty” to show that it recognizes that preserving college football is not priority number one — to show that the culture of idolatry for athletics takes a back seat to the welfare of innocent people. The fact that the janitors were afraid to report for fear of losing their job is the reason that the program should be suspended — from top to bottom, those involved knew the right thing but chose not to (out of fear, misguided loyalty, etc.) because of the status of the football program.

    This is a great piece though, and an excellent exposition on ethics and the choices we confront every day. But we should take the keys of the person who isn’t ready to drive. And if they get behind the wheel anyway, and we choose to do nothing, then we are indeed responsible.

    • Thank you for your comments, Brian, including the challenges to parts you disagreed with.

      I contemplated a whole section elaborating “snitching” stuff, but since this was already a pretty massive piece (by GMP standards), I decided to skip it. I agree with you that “stop snitching” is a terrible ethical guidepost, but the problem is where to draw the lines, and a tendency to draw those lines differently for in-groups vs. out-groups.

      Since I skipped that section, I intentionally chose “snitch” as a shortcut to convey the negative connotation we often see to what could more generously be phrased “report wrongdoing”. With a case like PSU and knowing what we know, of course someone should have reported wrongdoing, and we wouldn’t be calling it “snitching”. In fact, many people did report, but not persistently enough, and to the authorities they thought should know, instead of the authorities (police) who actually needed to know. As blatant as that failure is after the fact, though, I think it takes place in a context of cultures that definitely *don’t* celebrate turning each other in, so it’s hard to flip the switch from a lifetime of “don’t snitch” to “report wrongdoing” when circumstances call for it.

      Most words I can think of for people who tell on other people aren’t flattering: snitch, rat, informant, tattletale. That last one, “tattletale”, is one of the first we learn, and we get it from parents, teachers, and friends. One of the more kind words for this role is “whistleblower”, but even that isn’t something most people want to be, whether or not they respect it.

      I also think that as morally repugnant as “don’t snitch” sounds in this context because of the consequences, it’s value in many other cases isn’t that hard to see. When I picture a culture where “report all wrongdoing” is the norm, it doesn’t look rosy to me. It conjures up examples of neighbors constantly reporting neighbors to the Gestapo or KGB, kids reporting parents, people with grudges making up charges, and so on. There is such a thing as too much reporting, so the difficult task is finding the sweet spot in the middle, where we don’t have constant snitching, but can manage to realize when it’s time to flip the switch and report serious wrongdoing, even if it’s by someone in our in-group. I don’t have that solution, but I think it starts with asking the right questions, and “they’re all monsters for thinking college football is more important” isn’t even a question.

      • I’m not so sure that “too much reporting” leads to what you’re saying — after all, we’re not talking about reporting people in the context of a totalitarian regime abusing its power against its citizens. That changes the ethical conversation. Instead, we’re talking about reporting dangerous behavior and crimes so that 1.) the danger is removed 2.) the person(s) involve learn why their actions are unacceptable as members of a community and 3.) people learn to take responsibility for themselves. Granted, reporting would be easier if we lived in a system of restorative justice. My argument isn’t necessarily that you ought to report all wrongdoing (though if it’s actual wrongdoing by your own moral standards, I think you should), but that if you do not report — and your failure to report leads to negative outcomes, you certainly are somewhat culpable.

  5. Just as a note, the Kitty Genovese case is fraught with inaccuracies and many people actually did call the police on her behalf.

    I might comment more in depth in a bit.

    • That was a very interesting paper, Brian. Thanks for sharing it. I’m always fascinated by a good debunking, and that one definitely alters my perspective on the Kitty Genovese story. As the author of the paper pointed out, debunking the “38 witnesses” version doesn’t invalidate all the subsequent research it inspired, but it does have interesting implications for how it shaped what social psychologists did and didn’t choose to study later. (And still do, since the parable version is still what’s in most textbooks.)

      The paper itself also pointed out another popular myth that I happened see debunked in the course of writing this article. At one point, I was thinking of incorporating the quote frequently attributed to Edmund Burke, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I ended up going another way, but not before finding out that no one’s ever been able to find that quote in his work. It’s still a nifty quote, and it’s gotten lots of mileage in various forms, but apparently Burke doesn’t get the credit.

      • Funny, that was the line I quoted in my response to your piece. If I could eliminate the “snitches get stitches” mentality from our morality conversations, I would be a happy man. Or if I could at least get people to start talking about ethical issues. That’s why, even though I disagree with your conclusions, I love your piece. I wish more people would be reflective about the decisions we’ve made and their implications.

        • I also think the author of the piece you linked to — debunking the Burke quote — is mistaken to say that it’s used often as an “us vs. them” thing. I’ve always seen it used as more of a “First they came for the communists…” — a reminder that we need to stand up to forces even when not in our own self interest. Anyway, it’s late and I’m probably rambling. Thanks for responding to my original post.

  6. I think a lot of responsibility has to depend on power. We don’t feel as angry about the janitors who don’t report what they saw as we do about the head coach. They suspected, certainly correctly, that any such report would at best be ignored, and at worst get them fired. So power matters.

    But what about my case? Mine is not that different than yours, and I’ve never discussed it publicly before now.

    My Scoutmaster made a pass at me when I was 16 and his Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. He told me he had slept with “man, woman, and child”. He asked about my sexual fantasies, and suggested going on a camping trip together when I replied…it didnt faze me at all, I didn’t feel pressured and I knew what I did and didn’t want, I simply turned him down. But I didn’t report it, and I know that he later spent time in jail because someone didn’t say, “No.” Were they as independent and unfazed as I was? Or did he abuse his power? Should I be held accountable for my inaction? I’ve never even considered that possibility until I read this article. I can’t hide as a “victim”, I certainly felt empowered. I’ve always thought of it as simply an amusing anecdote in my life. Did someone else suffer as a result?

    • I agree power matters in terms of the consequences of choices. Power magnifies the consequences of both good and bad choices. That’s sort of my take on the Spiderman aphorism, “With great power comes great responsibility,” which has truth to it despite coming from a comic book. However, where I break from a lot of people is what seems to be the unspoken assumption, “With great power comes a higher capacity for doing the right thing.” That would be nice if true, but I don’t see it holding up. People at different levels of power make roughly the same choices, and we judge them different (morally) based on the consequences, not the choice.

      Take the janitor example. It’s easy to sympathize with a janitor not reporting for fear of losing their job because they know they can’t take on the football program and untouchable coach. I can sure sympathize with that. But that’s an ass-covering decision, isn’t it? “I don’t want to lose my job, and it probably wouldn’t change anything anyway.” We don’t vilify the janitor for making the ass-covering choice because he’s more relatable and it feels like a report from a powerless person wouldn’t have accomplished anything anyway, since it’s not like he’s the head coach or something. The decision was basically the same, though, and for very similar reasons, but the powerless person is somehow sympathetic while the powerful one is a monster.

      It bears repeating – since it’s so easy to misunderstand – that I’m not trying to justify what Paterno or others did in not only failing to report, but apparently covering up. I just think it’s more productive in terms of avoiding such things in the future to analyze the whole thing in terms of mistakes we’re all prone to, and how to better avoid them, rather than mistakes that only monsters make. I think it’s fine to note the power differential between janitor and head coach and how different their relative influences were in how the abuse unfolded, but it’s instructive (I hope) to realize that if you set aside those power differences, they both made a decision not to report based at least partly on self-interest, didn’t they?

      • Yes, I agree with your basic premise. It’s a human flaw that exists at all levels, and it’s good to be aware of it. It doesn’t go away with power, even if we think it should. I don’t think it’s just that the janitor is more relatable though, it’s because we know he had more to lose. If Paterno had done the right thing, he would have weathered the storm just fine. The janitor would not have. And as I’ve often pointed out to the righteous when I fight for the need for pseudonyms…not everyone can afford to be an activist and put their life on the line.

        Here’s another take on why people may look away. There’s the whole issue of consent and power imbalance. When I was 16 it didn’t bother me that I’d been propositioned, and that he said that he had slept with children, because I was confident of my (frankly, privileged) concept of my own agency. It didn’t occur to me that anyone might say “yes” when they really meant “no”. I had no conception of power imbalance, or how that might be abused.

        “Sure,” someone might say, “but you were only 16.”

        That’s true, but now I’m 50, and I’m ashamed to admit that as a white, straight male, I really didn’t start to really understand the meaning of words like “privilege”, “agency”, and “consent” until the last few years. I actually thought that a young teen *could* consent in a power-imbalanced situation like that—because after all, *I* could.

        Do we really think that Paterno, in his incredibly privileged position, had any concept of what it’s like to not have power? To *no* be able to say, “No”? Or was it very easy for him to say, “Well, if they were doing that, then it’s probably what they wanted.” Because after all, he couldn’t imagine *himself* ever saying “Yes” when he didn’t mean it.

        • It never really occurred to me that part of Paterno’s decision-making might have involved an belief that the victims must have “wanted it” if they didn’t say “No”. It’s possible that factored in, but in my own speculation, I assumed the more important influences in what he did and didn’t do were about protecting what he had to lose, and to a lesser extent, denial that this colleague who he’d respected and trusted for so long could be capable of such terrible things.

          I don’t think it’s just that the janitor is more relatable though, it’s because we know he had more to lose.

          I think most people would agree, but I think that’s an illusion. What did the janitor have to lose? His job. Granted, that’s a profound disruption to one person’s life, and maybe that woud threaten his home, therefore his family, etc., but we’re talking about one person’s livelihood, *if* no one believed him and his employers retaliated against him. To Paterno’s mind, if Sandusky goes down, that’s not one guy (Sandusky) losing his job and livelihood. That’s a stain on the football program and university that could endanger the reputation and livelihood of thousands upon thousands of students, faculty, alumni, etc. That’s a lot to lose – and now Penn State has lost it. They probably would have lost less if Sandusky had just been turned in and exposed as soon as the first allegations came to light, but that still would have been a huge scandal. For sure, the janitor had a lot to lose, but I don’t think he had “more”, because consequences to his personal life would not have massive ripple effects like consequences to the entire university.

          On a side note, a piece that’s often left out of this “did nothing” analysis is that Sandusky was charged and acquitted before much of this (I forget where exactly in the timeline without reading up on it again), so if people “do something” and nothing happens, I think it’s normal (not justified, just normal) to hesitate to “do something” the next time around, especially with so much at stake. I just tried a quick google search to find a reference on those earlier charges because I distinctly remember reading about them, but all the keywords I’m thinking of now return hits on the most recent trial. I’ll post a link later if I have time to find one. (Or if anyone else has one, feel free to share, please.)

          • I agree that protecting what he has to lose would come first. I just think that “They could have said, “no”” is a likely way to rationalize the decision, because we know that in a lot of cases, that *is* what privileged people think.

            You may be right about how much each had to lose. I can’t wrap my mind around that kind of fealty to an organization (especially a sport), so it’s hard for me to comprehend what it would mean to him.

      • I think it’s fine to note the power differential between janitor and head coach and how different their relative influences were in how the abuse unfolded, but it’s instructive (I hope) to realize that if you set aside those power differences, they both made a decision not to report based at least partly on self-interest, didn’t they?

        There is one area where this analysis does fail. It simply takes the view it’s individual against individual, and no Individual against Group.

        I’ve seen that group dynamic play out so many times, and there is a high risk of violence in different forms – from harassment of all types through to outright physical violence. When I’ve been involved in in either supporting whistle blowers or investigating abuse it is a factor that has to be taken extremely seriously. It is very real. I know just how real it is because I have been targeted.

        When you look at PSU the examples of violence are all over the place – the student riot after Paterno was fired – how Victims were singled out and had to be moved for their own safety – even how Vickey Triponey would not stay near PSU when she had to attend a funeral, she stayed out of area due to fear of that Violence. I still remain in awe of the young guy who stood up to the mob and made it clear that it was the responsibility of the students to hold leaders to account. On the other hand, I’m sure he only got to say that becasue the media were present – and even then the risk of violence against him was palpable. If the media were not there I am sure he would either have not been enable to speak out, or if he had he would have suffered real physical consequences.

        Where JoePa and PSU came together there has been a mob mentality. I’m in no way surprised that a Janitor would be in fear for reporting – and for that matter the same would apply to Mike McQueary. I’m happy to bet that there were far more people who could have come forward with evidence, and they have stayed stumb because of the very real risk of violence in all forms. Certain parts of PSU feared loss of face and revenue – lower down the food chain risk to physical safety was and even remains a real issue. When Paterno’s statue was taken down people who supported the action were happy to tell reporters – but not on camera. That speaks volumes as to the ongoing risk of violence.

        That violence is a known factor, which is why the Institutional failures are so appalling. PSU as an employer, institution of education and even acting “in loco parentis” has been obliged to address such issues and have safeguards in place – and they failed.


  1. […] If you want to see a real-life example of “No regard as to how it affected anyone but himself” check out Marcus Williams’ piece on Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno, Click Here. […]

  2. […] [For commentary that suggests we're more like Paterno than we'd like to admit, see Marcus Williams' Sandusky, Paterno, Rick Reilly, & Me.] […]

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