Editorial- The Bystander Effect

(Editor’s Note- This is not an Oklahoma related article except in the sense that all college football news is in some way Oklahoma related)

It’s not inconceivable.

I have heard the word inconceivable used by commentators this past week to describe the morally repugnant inaction of football coach Joe Paterno and others at Penn State in the face of credible allegations of child sexual abuse by Paterno’s one time successor in waiting, Jerry Sandusky.

Horrifying. Upsetting. Disquieting. Corrupt. Those are some good adjectives for the string of events that have played out in Happy Valley this week. Inconceivable it is not. It is, in fact, all too conceivable.

This is what happens when people cherish and value the reputation of an institution more highly than actual, living, breathing human beings. People with a vested interest in institutional self preservation will roll over any number moral roadblocks to protect it. We have seen this pattern of scandal and cover-up in police forces, in the military, at service academies, in the catholic church, in corporate hierarchies, in congress, in the white house. The fact that a college football program can now take it’s place alongside the above institutions should tell you something about the place college football now occupies in our culture. It has been an unhealthy relationship for some time, but the riots in support of Paterno on Wednesday night are an all time low.

There seems to be something toxic about the idealization of these people and programs. Allow me to state the obvious: assigning superhuman status to people tends to contribute to a culture of unaccountability. I’m not saying that this could never happen in, say, college volleyball, but I can almost guarantee there wouldn’t be a cover up going all the way up to the president of the university. That situation would be dealt with, because the perceived stakes are far lower. In newspaper jargon, that’s a B-2 story, below the fold. The same goes for the McDonalds down the street; if someone walked in on a rape in progress behind the fry station, the cops would be called instantly. No one would value the reputation of Jerry the assistant manager more than the life of a rape victim. And yet, here we are. Why?

 

Let’s break it down:

 

  1. No one wanted to know. The Penn State football program is legendary in the truest sense of the word. Joe Paterno is an expert mythmaker; a tiny giant of collegiate sports who has entranced sports scribes for thirty years by seeming to embody the values that they hold most dear. Sportswriters are a breed unto themselves, consumed with stories of epic struggle and triumph over adversity. The horsetrading and cynicism of modern sports strike them as crass and corrupting, but at least there’s always JoePa. Here was a guy who was “doing it the right way” and still winning games. Much has been made about how squeaky clean the Penn State program has been, but how much of that is because no one was really looking? This isn’t a new story; it generally doesn’t take a grand jury being convened to draw press attention to a major ongoing scandal with multiple eyewitnesses and multiple felonies. If this went down at USC or Alabama, we would have heard about it years ago. I won’t be shocked at all if in the coming days it turns out that Sandusky’s pedophilia has been an open secret for at least a decade. Did it never occur to anyone to check into why St. Joe’s heir apparent retired at age 55 and never coached again?
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  3. Power and entitlement. Show of hands: how many people think it would take much more than a phone call from the much revered JoePa to any police department in central Pennsylvania to make an investigation go away? anyone? For the record, I don’t think he actually did any such thing, but the perception that he might would have been more than enough. No one wants to be the guy who sank the football program at Penn State. It may even be the case that by virtue of the charges being so heinous, it was even harder for a whistle blower to rock the boat. It’s one thing to light a firecracker, it’s another to set off a nuke. Lest we become too confident in our righteousness, we should recognize that something like this could happen at any big time football program. Given the money and influence at stake, a cover up of a major crime likely looks pretty damn appealing to the powers that be, provided that they are sufficiently amoral.
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  5. Diffusion of responsibility. The lead from one of the most infamous news reports in modern times: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.“ Sociologists call it “The Bystander Effect.” The more witnesses there are to a crime, the less likely anyone is to come forward. Everyone assumes that someone else should take responsibility, and in the end, no one does. Only one person in this story is accused of anally raping a 10 year old. That they are all guilty by inaction is something that seems to be lost on everyone involved. I imagine that Mike McQueary thinks he did the right thing by telling Joe Paterno, Paterno probably thought he did right by the victim when he told his boss. Everyone was able to pass the buck to the next guy, and eventually the problem seemed to go away. If we don’t hear about it, it isn’t happening!
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  7. “It’s an internal matter.” Powerful or prestigious institutions typically don’t like to be held to the standards of outsiders. This is partially basic PR- not wanting to air dirty laundry- but it’s also good old fashioned hubris. “Hey, Jerry seems really sorry, he didn’t get to be the new coach, we took his keys away, Penn State is left unblemished, and no one needed to involve the police in this. Everybody wins! Except, of course, the next kids to get molested…but that’s someone else, somewhere else! And Jerry really really seemed sorry!”

 

It’s depressing, no doubt, but the good news is that it’s out in the open now, so there is the possibility of justice. Here’s what I think justice looks like in this case:

 

-Long jail sentences for everyone involved- including everyone who knew and did nothing. It may be found that McQueary and Paterno fulfilled their statutory obligations in terms of mandatory reporting, but what are the requirements for criminal conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice?

-Second Mile (Sandusky’s charity) needs to be investigated top to bottom to see if more victims, perpetrators, and silent enablers can be identified.

-Everyone involved in the football program and any complicit administrators at Penn State should be fired immediately. Clean house completely.

-The season should be over as of today; no game tomorrow or for the rest of the year.

-The NCAA should give the death penalty to Penn State for at least the next year while they make changes and clean up the program.

-The victims and their families deserve apologies and large cash settlements from the university, Second Mile, Sandusky personally, Paterno personally, and anyone else involved who has liquid assets.

 

That doesn’t really even begin to “make it right”, but it’s about the best that the parties involved can do. Our society takes crimes like this so seriously because the damage they do is irreversible. If everyone had done the right thing in this case, Penn State would have been scandalized for a while, but would likely have recovered. The road back for the victims is likely somewhat longer. You can manage a PR scandal, but you can’t un-rape 8 children.

One Comment
  1. I couldn’t have said this better myself. As a victim of childhood sexual assault, I am absolutely enraged that no one said anything. These poor children were failed on so many levels, and I would love nothing more than to burn Penn State to the ground after staking Sandusky on the pyre.

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