Penn State’s Tragedy Enabled by Coaches and Others Who Looked Away

Joe Paterno and other leaders at Penn State averted their eyes instead of averting a tragedy, writes Thane Rosenbaum.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Tragically, we’ve learned this week that the Nittany Lions of Penn State fail to roar when it comes to protecting the sexual innocence of adolescent boys. In fact, despite being able to field a team of hulking men, Penn State’s coaches, and its athletic director, somehow were without the muscle to even call the police.

Like most people, conditioned to balance risks, the caretakers of Penn State were mainly interested in protecting their own.

Moral failure, sometimes, is assisted by a lackluster legal system. There is a pathetic legal history in the United States when it comes to the duty to rescue a fellow human being in distress. The general rule is that there is no such obligation. In fact, under common law, if a rescuer attempts to assist another and, in doing so, causes further injury, that rescuer, righteous though he or she may be, will be found liable for causing the excess harm. Rather than encouraging courageous acts, the law, perversely, sends a message that the bystander is better off simply walking away.

Yes, maddening, morally outrageous, but tragically true.

The president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, and the university’s legendary coach Joe Paterno have now lost their jobs due to their failure to act like moral men when it came to their former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky who is charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period. As shocking as their silence appears to be, Spanier and Paterno have committed no crimes, nor are they likely to be charged with any. Their reported offense was moral. They apparently allowed a sexual predator to go about his business under their watch—and with the use of their facilities. As for Sandusky, he may have been a defensive coach, but everything else about him, it seems, was offensive—and, if he is found guilty, his actions were illegal.

The firing of Spanier and Paterno was a face-saving maneuver by Penn State’s Board of Trustees. All that moral outrage had to be answered, and it came in the form of a moral censure. Shame has suddenly rained down on the campus, with the added downpour provided by Penn State’s own riotous student body, which has responded, bizarrely, as if their beloved elderly coach is the actual victim of this affair rather than eight victimized boys.

This unfolding drama calls to mind other tragedies that exposed the moral consequences of the absence of a legal duty to rescue. In 1964, Kitty Genovese, living in Kew Gardens, Queens, was fatally stabbed while crying out for help. A police investigation later found that approximately a dozen of her neighbors heard her pleas but did nothing. Sociologists lamented the moral decline of urban areas. Others simply attributed this moral failure to the bystander effect—the legal innocence of those merely standing by with no personal stake in the matter.

More recently, in 1997, 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson was raped and strangled by Jeremy Strohmeyer in the bathroom of a Las Vegas casino. The assailant’s friend David Cash happened to walk in while the crime was being committed, and then slipped out without either intervening or calling hotel security. Strohmeyer received a life sentence without parole; Cash returned to the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a student, followed by a parade of catcalls but without having violated the law. Eventually, the condemnation grew so great, and his campus life became so miserable, that he voluntarily withdrew from the university.

The experience of Cash seems to resemble the fate of Penn State’s receiver’s coach, Mike McQueary. He is the one who says that, while a graduate assistant in 2002, he observed Sandusky having anal sex with a boy in the team’s locker-room shower. He failed to rescue or to contact the police. Instead, he called his father seeking advice. McQueary’s father, apparently, advised his son to watch out for No. 1 and merely report the incident to Paterno the next day.

Now, nearly a decade later, McQueary is an assistant coach who, unlike Paterno, has not been dismissed. Neither was coaching today. McQueary has received multiple death threats—the Penn State equivalent of what David Cash experienced at Berkeley.

In such instances, the community responds with its own harsh judgment and exacts a punishment of moral censure. The law might tolerate neglect in response to another’s peril, but when the collective conscience is suitably shaken, moral triggers get pulled, and those who stand by and do nothing are treated with revulsion and disgust.

Paterno made his reputation as a molder of men. But in this case, he apparently enabled an employee to sodomize boys. Paterno’s duty, while not a legal one, still exists—at least in the moral universe. Much more was expected of him. There was nothing paternal in his neglect of this sad affair.