The news from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) has been riveting. For those who have not been following this story closely, a onetime football coach, Jerry Sandusky, has been convicted of molesting young boys in the showers and locker rooms of the university’s gymnasium facilities. One glaring and controversial issue is why university officials, including the famed head-football coach Joe Paterno, now deceased, as well as the President of the University, Graham Spanier, withheld the information they had about Sandusky’s crimes from as early as 1998, thus exposing more boys to potential harm.
The NCAA, the association that oversees collegiate sports, imposed extraordinarily heavy penalties on the university for this lapse. They fined Penn State $60 million, instituted a four-year ban on bowl game appearances, took away scholarships, and forced the university to forfeit victories going back to 1998. Many observers regarded the penalty, particularly its last part, as too severe. Why deprive all past football players of the record of their wins because a single coach had molested children. Moreover, as one newspaper editorial suggested, the courts had only charged two of the actors, a coach, Tim Curley and an assistant vice president, Gary Schultz, with endangering a child by failing to report. They had not yet convicted them. Could the NCAA act as the judge and the executioner before the courts established guilt or innocence?
There were other anomalies. As one reporter noted, “Many officials in law enforcement and child-welfare organizations can’t name instances of charges being brought against individuals who failed to report a crime relating to child abuse.” Why were Curley’s and Schultz’s failures treated with such unusual severity? Finally, Paterno was a university hero. He had built the football team into a national powerhouse, had catapulted the university into the ranks of great institutions, and had helped raise millions of dollars for its academic programs. In 2001 the university had in fact erected a statue of him in his honor, cast in bronze. But after Sandusky's crimes were revealed, the university pulled down the statute, in a gesture that was one step away from burning him in effigy. The king was dead and it seemed, deservedly so. Paterno in fact had actually died some six months before.
In addition, some observers were puzzled by what they interpreted to be the NCAA’s “holier than thou” stance. The NCAA imposed its penalty in the context of a particular narrative. As the narrative goes, the reason that top Penn State officials had taken no action, was that they were protecting the football program from embarrassment, and perhaps disgrace. This showed, the NCAA suggested, that the football program was too revered, that people acted as if football were more important than such values as integrity and decency, values core to university life. Yet, as many observers also noted, the NCAA as a vehicle of the universities themselves, had done more than any other body to elevate the role of college sports as universities’ moneymaker.
The proximate stimulant for the NCAA's decision was the Freeh report, a report commissioned by the University’s board of trustees and written by Louis Freeh, an ex-FBI director. Yet a careful reading of the report reveals considerable ambiguities. The report highlights two incidents, the first in 1998 and the second in 2002. In the first incident, a boy’s mother told university officials, as well as the local police, that Sandusky had showered with her son in a university locker room. The police referred the case to the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) whose expert, John Seasock, found that Sandusky was not in fact a pedophile. In addition, the district attorney decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge Sandusky with a crime. Moreover, there is a very little evidence in the Freeh report about Paterno's involvement in the events surrounding this first incident. There are simply two emails in which others reference the “coach.” Paterno’s family insists that he had no knowledge of the first event. The Freeh report provides very limited and only indirect evidence that he did. Indeed, it notes that, “After Curley's initial updates to Paterno,” [inferred from emails written by Curley to Schultz- LH], “the available record is not clear as to how the conclusion of the Sandusky investigation was conveyed to Paterno.”
The second incident in 2002 was more complicated. It is important to note that it took place when Sandusky was no longer a university employee, but did have access to the sports facilities. A graduate student, Michael McQueary, saw Sandusky and a boy, through their reflections in a mirror, in a shower room. They were engaged in what appeared to be sexual activity. Sandusky had his arms around the boy’s waist and the boy, with his back to Sandusky, had his hands pressed against the wall. McQueary did not see "insertion" nor did he observe any signs or sounds suggesting coercion. When McQueary slammed a locker door to make noise, Sandusky and the boy separated and looked directly at McQueary, who then left the locker room.
McQueary, on the advice of his father reported the incident to Paterno, but as one reporter notes, “out of respect for Paterno, he did not reveal the details of what he saw.” He did not use the terms “sodomy” or “anal intercourse,” even though he believed intercourse had occurred. Paterno told him, “You’ve done the right thing. I know it is probably tough for you to come here and tell me this, but you've done the absolutely right thing.” When McQueary later described what he saw to Curley and Schultz, “He again refrained from describing all of the lurid details.”
As the reference to McQueary’s less than full description suggests, what happened next, is that the story of what he saw, was transformed from one about intercourse to one about wrestling, horseplay and fondling. The most important question is whether or not this transformation was motivated, to cover up what happened, or was the result of the discomfort, or more strongly the disgust people felt in considering the scene McQueary described. Clearly, McQueary felt the details were as he notes “lurid,” and that he omitted them to protect his listeners. When Schultz testified to the grand jury he remembered McQueary describing, “some kind of wrestling around and maybe Jerry might have grabbed the boy’s genitals.” Paterno remembered McQueary as describing that Sandusky, “Had fondled the boy.”
One possible source of discomfort, and what may have made the scene lurid to McQueary, was that that he was observing a homosexual act. Sociologists refer to the culture of male sports as “homosocial.” This means that athletes touch each other a lot to express both affection and aggression, but that at the same time this touching, wrestling and embracing must reinforce a strong taboo against expressing sexual desire, even if desire is stimulated. The touching signifies, that in this case, touching does not signify, desire. This is a tricky boundary and it is no accident that a predator such as Sandusky would use a sports setting to satisfy his sexual compulsions. Indeed, Schultz described Sandusky as a physical person. “He always touched folks, young and old during conversations. He frequently put friends in headlocks, slapped them on the back, grabbed arms and other body parts, in physical displays of affection.”
Social taboos operate by promoting disgust, for example, a religious Jew or Muslim finds pork disgusting, and it is likely that McQueary’s story stimulated a similar disgust. One hypothesis is that the disgust, and the anxiety this feeling created, helped transform the story from one of sexual penetration into one of wrestling, horseplay and at the most, some fondling.
As the Freeh report suggests, Paterno’s involvement in this second incident was limited, after he told Curley and Schultz what McQuery had reported. The latter two met twice with Sandusky who denied he was engaged in sexual activity. Influenced partly by the 1998 expert’s report, Sandusky’s denials, their view of the event as closer to horseplay than to intercourse, and perhaps by the fact that Sandusky was no longer an employee, they did not report this event to the police. Instead, they forbad Sandusky from bringing boys into the Sports facilities in the future. They also reported McQueary’s story to the board chair of Second Mile, an organization Sandusky helped found, which gave opportunities to disadvantaged and at risk children. He had remained active in Second Mile after his retirement from Penn State.
The Freeh report castigates Penn state officials for not recognizing, that by failing to report a predator to the police, they were putting boys in danger. But many adults do not really understand the possible psychological impacts of sexual relationships between adults and children. Long ago the famous psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi described sexual relationships between adults and children as shaped by the “confusion of tongues.” In this confusion, adults assume that a child’s ignorance protects him from experiencing sexual gestures as in fact sexual. This same confusion leads the adult to confuse the child’s submissiveness as a token of the child’s love. Moreover, the famous “Rind report,” (http://www.mhamic.org/rind/), a controversial “meta-analysis” of 59 studies of the impact of sexual abuse on children, which passed the test of peer review, noted that the impact of sexual abuse on children is in fact variable. Girls suffer more than boys, some children find the experience positive, and the degree of coercion matters. The authors of the study concluded that the legal term, “child sexual abuse” was far too imprecise. Moreover, Pennsylvania state law mandates that certain professionals, such as teachers, physicians, social workers, child-care workers and camp counselors, are required to report an incident of child abuse. College level coaches are not explicitly mentioned in the law, and it is highly unlikely that Penn State officials ever considered themselves to be “mandatory reporters.” By the same token, it is highly unlikely that they had any formal training on what to observe and how to report. Indeed, these last two facts may very well lead to Schultz’s and Curley’s acquittal on this charge.
There is the old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It represents folklore’s counsel that we need to mitigate our tendencies to judge the wrongdoing of others by acknowledging our own potential for wrongdoing. This counsel also suggests that we judge each other too harshly when we fail to acknowledge the likelihood that we too could have made the wrong decision. Many people responded with disgust to the story of Penn State’s failures to stop Sandusky, but this disgust may protect them from acknowledging their own potential vulnerability, their own penchant for not reporting and sending a colleague to jail based on ambiguous evidence.
Thinking organizationally, it is proper to hold leaders accountable for violations of the law, or failures of judgment. But to prevent future failures we should also understand the failure as the result of a human process, in which culture and group dynamics, also play a role. This is now the common wisdom for understanding why industrial accidents happen, or why patients are harmed in hospitals. Decisions makers are accountable, but they make decisions in a context they don't control.
The Freeh report recommended that Penn State implement improvements to prevent future child abuse, such as appointing an ethics officer, improving background checks of prospective hires, and appointing a chief compliance officer. The problem with these suggestions, however commonsensical they may be, is that they paint the picture of organizations as machines without regard to the human processes of judgment, feelings and social ties that undergird them. The latter are the true engines of success as well as failure. One hypothesis is that even if the Freeh report’s recommendations had been implemented prior to Sandusky’s crimes, the psychological and cultural issues that shaped peoples’ responses, would have remained the same.
We face one last question. In light of these ambiguities and complexities, what explains the rage against Paterno, as if he rather than Sandusky were the sexual abuser, so much so that we had to topple his statue? What gave the NCAA license to judge the culture of athletics at Penn State as lacking, when it was itself partly responsible for “big time football’s” corruption of academia? One is tempted to conclude, following the work of my colleague Howard Schwartz, that we take pleasure in what psychoanalysts call the symbolic, “killing of the father.” (see, Society against itself: Political Correctness and Organizational Destruction, http://www.karnacbooks.com/Product.asp?PID=28569). Perhaps, Paterno, even though his guilt was partial, had become the symbol of the corrupt father whose claim on resources and our attention results entirely from his abusiveness, rather from his achievements.
There is in the air, a picture of society built on this kind of corruption. This picture may help us explain to ourselves why our own accomplishments may be limited, while others’ appear extraordinary. The latter’s claims, from this point of view, are illegitimate, because they have stolen our resources and our talents. In that sense, killing the father expresses and relieves us of our envy. There is of course corruption in society, and as the history of the recent financial crisis suggests, we have decision makers and business leaders who are undoubtedly guilty of malfeasance. But we are at risk of undermining our society’s accomplishments, of being self-destructive, if that is all we see.