The Penn State scandal has Justin Cascio wondering what’s wrong with a culture that prevents a simple call to 911.
Why didn’t that graduate assistant call 911 when he saw a child being raped in the shower?
Imagine that it’s 2002 and you’re a grad student—a 28-year-old former division-one quarterback, yes, but still a graduate assistant—in the Penn State athletic department. Late one night when you should be alone in the building, you hear what sounds like sex in the locker room showers. Following the sounds, you see something so terrible that you have trouble believing what you are seeing: a man sexually assaulting a boy. What do you do?
Mike McQueary, a man who once broke up a knife fight between two Penn State players, certainly could’ve stopped whatever he saw Jerry Sandusky doing to that little boy—and he certainly should’ve—but how do you react in that situation? What do you do when you, a former Penn State player, see your former coach, the legendary defensive coordinator, doing something unspeakable, something so totally unthinkable? Well, what we know is that McQueary behaved like someone in a panic: he ran away.
Having found a phone, the next appropriate reaction to witnessing a violent crime would be to call the police. Instead, the panicked student called his dad, who advised him to get out of the building. The foundational horror of the moment, that a child was being raped at that very moment, in that building, was apparently forgotten and, in a lapse of perspective the father advised his son, not to call the police, but to tell someone in the school administration what he has seen. Sadly, the administrators who were notified worked only to cover up the crime and minimize the harm that their resident child molester—and beloved football coach—could do—but only what he did on campus.
By reporting on this crime in the sports pages, we frame this and other stories involving anyone in sport as being about sports: about institutions, teams, and their brands. A pathological overidentification with an institution or in-group may be why a grad assistant in the athletics department chose to report a first-hand witnessing of a sex crime against a child to a school administrator instead of to the police. The school takes on a kind of tribal identity, with the school administrators being like lords or chiefs: the proper authority for everything that happens on their turf.
To Penn State college football fans, Paterno and Sandusky are Penn State. They see Sandusky as their own, and the victim, who Sandusky met through his work with Second Mile, an organization set up to help troubled boys, as being from the outside. When everyone from the grad assistant to the upper administration acted to keep crimes committed by one of Penn State’s brand-makers secret, they were hiding their own shame for admiring and abetting a known child molester.
School administrators who restricted Sandusky’s activities on campus convinced themselves they had done enough. People empowered and accountable to act in the face of an accusation, acted out their denial. Resolving the cognitive dissonance caused by believing both the witnesses’ accounts of Sandusky’s attacks on boys, and that the coaching team of Penn State was a force of good, meant behaving like a dysfunctional family, in which everyone acts to hide and protect their abusive member. This is where vigilante systems of justice always break down, whether in a town in the Old West, in a family, or on a close-knit campus: when it comes to policing one’s own.
I wonder if the any of the men who could have stopped Sandusky ever imagined themselves in the boy’s place. Facing the terror of childhood sexual abuse may have been more than any of them could handle, and while no excuse, could explain the passivity of each of the men who could have reported Sandusky to the police, and did not. I wonder if they projected onto the boy their sense that a shameful thing had happened to the victim and that, as a future man, his sexual injury must be hidden. I can’t know what was in any of their heads, but I also can’t stop wondering what would have to change in the culture of the Penn State athletic department, for anyone involved to have made the right decision when they had reason to suspect Sandusky’s crimes. What would have to change about not just Penn State, but the culture of collegiate sport, or of men, or all of us—for McQueary to have known the right thing to do? What is wrong with our culture when neither a grown man nor his father knows that, when you see a violent crime in progress and you can’t stop the attack yourself, that you call 911?
photo: vvvracer / flickr
The GMP on Penn State:
Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis
When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe
Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack
Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin
Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment, Mervyn Kaufman
Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson
Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State, Andrew Smiler
Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky
I Failed, Rick Morris
Sandusky-ed, Tim Green
Penn State: What Are We Talking About?, L. Edward Day
We (Still) Are, Cameron Conaway
Cognitive Dissonance and the Sandusky Situation, Justin Cascio
Start Snitching, David Perez