For the past few days I’ve been trying, without success, to make sense of the disgusting spectacle at Penn State. My reaction can be summed up in one word: inexplicable. The actions of Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Mike McQueary, the rioting Penn State students—all of it is inexplicable. I tell myself that it must be an anomalous event, for I can’t bear the idea that it may be symptomatic of our larger culture.
Since other writers have formed more coherent opinions on the topic, I’ll share what I think about what they’ve written.
My main thought about the situation is summed up by this comment by Rod Dreher:
I don’t know that I can think of an act of everyday cowardice more vile than Mike McQueary, big strapping 6-foot-4-inch Mike McQueary, walking away when he came upon an old man sodomizing a little boy.
Exactly. McQueary is the living embodiment of cowardice. The idea that a man could act in such a manner is beyond my comprehension. Anyone who is even remotely sympathetic to his situation or thinks they may have done the same thing in similar circumstances needs to stop whatever they are doing and begin some serious soul-searching. If your reaction would be anything other than that of Ronnie Polaneczky, then something is deeply flawed in your character:
I know, like I know the sun will rise tomorrow, that if I’d seen what McQueary saw, nothing would have stopped me from screaming bloody murder. From using every ounce of strength I possess to pull that naked, repulsive predator off of that little boy. From gathering the child in my arms. From telling him, “I am here. You are safe. It’s over.”
I am not alone. So many others I have spoken with about McQueary – whether male or female, a parent or childless – say the same, decent thing: They would not, could not, have left that boy. They would not, could not, have thought of anything other than ending the horror of what he was enduring.
It’s easy to imagine how hopeful the child must have felt when he locked eyes with McQueary. And it’s devastating to imaginehow he must have felt when McQueary fled.
Abandoned. On his own.
If you are the kind of person that can leave a child to be brutalized than you have lost your humanity. May God have mercy on your soul.
And if you’re a student at Penn State who is more upset about a coach being fired than a child being raped then please make that opinion as broadly known as possible (rioting is a good means of communicating your viewpoint). Your peculiar take on moral priorities needs to be made public so that the rest of us can avoid coming into contact with you in the future.
Alan Jacobs thinks the problem stems from viewing a football team as a military unit :
For me, the question that looms largest about the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal is this: How could someone see a man raping a child and fail to intervene? Fail even to call 911? I can contemplate many difficult, challenging, frightening situations that cause me to ask myself what I really would do if faced with them — and cause me to have no clear answer. This isn’t one of them. How could Mike McQueary not have done more?
The answer, I think, lies in the tradition — as old as football itself — of pretending that football is a branch of the military. Players often talk about other players they’d go to war with. That linebacker is a warrior. The guys in this locker room, they know I’ve got their back. Football coaches, more perhaps than coaches in any other sport, play up the idea that the team is comprised of a besieged band of brothers who can trust only one another. (Even at the school where I teach — a Division III school with no athletic scholarships, thank God — the football players sit together at dinner and chant and shout.) Moreover, the coaches themselves are the primary beneficiaries of this governing military metaphor: they are your commanding officers, and to them you are uniquely and solely accountable. I bet it never occurred to Mike McQueary to call the police. I bet the first, last, and only thought he had was: I have to tell Coach.
I think Alan’s metaphor may hold up in the abstract, but in my experience, it doesn’t represent the reality of military life. (Update: As Jacobs notes in the comments section, “Please note that my comment wasn’t about the military itself but about the way that sports teams are held together by a kind of make-believe that they’re soldiers.” He’s absolutely right about that.) I don’t know anyone I served with who thinks that anyone in the military, much less the commanding officer, is the person to whom they are “uniquely and solely accountable.” During the heat of battle warriors certainly look out for the interest of their brothers in arms. But when the bullets stop flying they go back to being accountable to their own conscience. Most people I knew in the Marines believed that their duty was to God, Country, and Corps—in that order.
Certainly there are situations when a small group of soldiers will try to cover up for each other. Those cases are, I believe, rather exceptional. And I find it unimaginable that a servicemember in the U.S. military would turn a blind eye after witnessing a child being raped. If it happened, though, it would be a case of the military acting more like a football team, rather than vice versa.
I love football and I respect football coaches. In fact, one of my all-time favorite characters on TV is Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights. But the fascination with football and the Cult of the Coach is a problematic sign of the degeneracy of modern manhood. Young men today are absolutely desperate for masculine role models. Too often the only example they have is a football coach. In many cases, the coaches are also decent, moral men. But the values of the playing field are not always sufficient for forming character. Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary, and Jerry Sandusky have proved that being a good coach and being a man of character are not always the same thing.
Finally, there is sci-fi writer John Scalzi who provides the most apt metaphor for this heartbreaking scandal:
Here’s what I think about that, right now. I’m a science fiction writer, and one of the great stories of science fiction is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was written by Ursula K. LeGuin. The story posits a fantastic utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.
At Pennsylvania State University, a grown man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia — or at very least the illusion of their utopia — was worth the pain and suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made.