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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
- 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.” 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 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.
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.
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