Good Ol' Boys' Good Ol' Cowardice

A child rapist and those who knowingly let his offenses go unpunished may not be moral equivalents, but, as we’re learning this week from Penn State, inaction can have dire consequences.

I’m sickened by the abuse perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky, but frankly, reading the grand jury report, I’m even more disturbed by the number of people who witnessed everything—from blatantly criminal activity (anal rape and forced oral sex) to highly suspicious behavior (a man in his 50s and 60s giving bear hugs to naked boys in the shower)—and never reported a single incident to the police. No one blew the whistle. In order to enable Sandusky to continue abusing boys for nearly two decades (and those are just the times we know about) a shocking number people had to turn a blind eye or leave the situation for someone else to handle.

But that’s exactly what so many did. Numerous people along the way—from the janitor who discovered Sandusky pinning a boy against a shower wall and performing oral sex on him to the graduate assistant who stumbled on Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old in the shower—informed their higher-ups of what they had witnessed. But then they walked away, putting faith in those higher-ups and assuming that someone else would handle the situation. No one wanted to be the person to rock the boat, and some (like the janitor mentioned in the grand jury report) were desperately afraid of losing their jobs.

Of course, blame ultimately lies at the top. With power, after all, comes responsibility. But the top dogs—who clearly felt they had much to lose—were blinded by selfish, willful ignorance. (For instance, a first-hand account of anal rape conveniently morphed into accusations of “horsing around” in the showers.) A group of administration officials seemingly desperate to make the situation just go away did as little as they possibly could. Even the punishment they did agree to was barely a slap on the wrist: an admittedly unenforceable ban on Sandusky bringing children to campus was practically a green light to continue molesting young boys so long as it was done off school grounds.

But unless you believe that Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, Graham Spanier, and countless others are all monsters completely devoid of morality (and statistically speaking, it seems unlikely to have that many sociopaths in one place), we need to ask how it’s possible that so many reasonable men could have shirked their legal and moral responsibilities. One explanation may be some version of the sociological phenomenon known as the bystander effect: the idea that the larger the numbers of bystanders, the less the likelihood someone will step forward to help a victim. In short, no one handles it because everyone assumes someone else will. A more straightforward explanation might be simply that Sandusky was just another member of an Old Boys Club that always protects its members.

To be fair, I don’t think gender explains everything about the Penn State scandal. But I do think it’s noteworthy that this story only involves men. These Penn State college football men make up a very powerful club, one with lots of prestige, influence, and money. I’ll add that the Catholic Church—infamous for its own pattern of harboring pedophiles—is also an old boys' club, albeit one of a very different sort. There seems to be something distinctly masculine about the type of cowardice that allows one to prioritize loyalty to powerful institutions and friends over protecting children. Can you imagine this many women knowing or suspecting that a child molester was in their midst and not bringing in the police?

In order to understand what happened at Penn State, it’s also important to recognize that people like Sandusky, people who do terrible things—despicable, criminal things—are not bad all the time. Sandusky, besides being a pedophile and rapist, is a human, and humans are social animals who crave community and social acceptance. I don’t know Sandusky, but I’d be surprised if he wasn’t desperately crafting a respectable public image to cover for his despicable private behavior. After all, rapists, murderers, and other assorted criminals always have friends and neighbors who express shock at the criminal’s true nature. How many times have you heard someone on the news say, “He always seemed like a good guy to me”? Ultimately, our culture has a loyalty problem: We prefer to remain loyal to those we know and like, even in the face of mounting evidence that they’re doing something very wrong. It’s just easier.

But the right thing to do is rarely the easy thing.

That is specifically why we need whistle-blowers. All the men who enabled Sandusky to continue his pattern of abuse deserve whatever punishment they receive. They are culpable. But this case is also a stark reminder that while it’s easy for us to summon righteous indignation now, it was obviously much harder than it ought to have been for so many men along the way to pick up the phone, dial 911, and say: “A prominent man in my community is molesting young boys.” Maybe some feared backlash that would cost them their jobs. Maybe others were in denial. Maybe folks worried that no one would believe them.

What’s clear is that while our culture does a spectacular job of making heroes out of football legends, we do an exceedingly poor job of valuing brave people of conscience who prioritize doing the right thing even in the face of personal repercussions. If we want to avoid more Catholic Church scandals or Penn States, we need fewer people afraid of rocking the boat and more who are unwilling to stay silent. If there was ever a moment in recent memory when it’s clear just how important whistleblowers are, this is certainly it.


Nicole, while I found much of your article very compelling I think writing off the event as the bystander effect is just too much and as a man I find the "good old boy" analolgy is a bit insulting. How about what happened was just plain old wrong, criminally wrong, and morally reprehensible. I am sorry but if I see a 10 year old boy being raped I am stopping it before I report it (my job be damned). Also it is not just being reported to my supervisor, it is being reported to the police. You are letting these people off too easily.

I, too, had similar thoughts. How anyone stood and watched these acts and didn't have every cell in their body lash out is beyond me!

Do not forget that the "culture" of big-time football (and other sports) and the ethos of the university have little in common and indeed are at odds with one another in key ways. Moreover, the corruption of collegiate athletic programs (particularly at the Division I level) is astounding in its depth and extent. It dirties most of those it touches. (See Taylor Branch's article in the Oct. Atlantic Monthly. For books on the subject, use the Library of Congress authorized subject heading "college sports—corrupt practices." Leave the dash out when using most search engines.)

I gather that the entire grand jury report has now been published? Or the arrest of Sandusky cites it? If Paterno was informed that a ten year old boy was raped by one of his coaches and merely passed on the information, he sure as hell should be fired. The details of what he was told certainly matter in this instance. Yes, if the sheeples were as excited about the demise of their economy, locally, as the can be about the fortunes of their football teams, wouldn't that be something.

No matter what the tribe -- bankers, cops, priests, family, soldiers, accountants, you name it -- they will protect their own, or at least fail to take any action that would bring the guilty to justice. This is human nature.

Once in a while there is a whistle blower. Here is a lawyer's description of the lawyer "disciplinary" system (note that it will be lawyers prosecuting Sandusky and the others):

“Study after study has shown that the current rules for professional conduct are not enforced. Misconduct is rarely perceived. If perceived, it is not reported. If reported, it is not investigated. If investigated, violations are not found. If found, they are excused. If they are not excused, penalties are light. And if significant penalties are imposed, the lawyer soon returns to practice, in that state or another. Lawyers constantly condemn the failure of the criminal justice system to deter crime for precisely these reasons – because of its alleged indifference, procedural niceties, or excessive lenience. Indeed, we know that the efficacy of social control varies even more strongly with the likelihood of punishment than it does with the severity of the sanction. Yet on both counts, especially the former, the professional disciplinary system falls far below the wholly inadequate standards of the criminal law. Lawyers can hardly present their travesty of a penal system as an effective deterrent.” (“Why Does the ABA Promulgate Ethical Rules?” by Richard L. Abel, Connell Professor of Law, University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, from 59 Texas Law Review 639, 1981)

The boy in the shower was African American, which adds another sad clue as to why these white men did not immediately call the police on their colleague.

The people who covered up for Jerry Sandusky are neither evil but in action they are vile and they have no ethical standards that would stand the scrutiny of an adult.
Adults they were supposed to be, protecting children in our society can have no greater impact, yet these supposed adults chose the expedient path of least resistance and showed their lack of ethical standards and a moral compass that would have precluded Mr. Sandusky from harming another child again.
The very idea that all of the administration of Pennsylvania State University, the Athletic Department, support staff, and the Board of Trustees have been repeatedly notified of this individuals predilection for little boys, shows a blatant disregard for the safety of children and a morbid preference for their careers which borders on criminality.
I find it reprehensible that even the "sainted" Joe Paterno chose to deny this individuals preference for little boys and instead looked the other way in what can only be described as a "cover your ass" maneuver limiting the liability of PSU for the continued raping of children. I spoke with a lifelong fanatic of the PSU football program at length on Thursday and he quoted to me the words of someone close to the investigation into the ongoing conspiracy to shield the football program at PSU. He stated that, there's so much more to this story yet to come out! There are incidents that will make the people howl in disbelief at the level of shielding that took place over an extended period of time.
But this culture is not only at PSU but it's systemic in all universities. The football programs are big money makers for each university and the Athletic dept's. of each university have their own skeletons in the closet. It may be high time to divorce the administration of a football program from the university proper and place it where it belongs on the field of profit making ventures.

Best article I've read on this MESS to date. It is DESPICABLE to me that so many were afraid of losing their jobs, but not of what this child and OTHERS were losing! What a pathetic evaluation of our human condition. I mean, who wants a job that you have to hold into YOUR OWN SOUL such secrets? NO THANK YOU... I'd rather wait tables, deliver newspapers or anything. I once had someone very close to me walk in while a family member was sexually abusing me. I was quite young, and can still recall the arm yanking and the accusations hurled at ME. I was six. It is a very sad thing when a child is abused and feels so de-valued and unprotected and yet people stand in the wings, aware but afraid of t heir own pathetic jobs OR their football team OR rocking a system OR their own discomfort. WHY are we not more fearful of facing ourselves as we see in the mirror a selfish coward who cared more for a paycheck than the very soul of a child? GOD HELP US ALL.

Several key points are brought up in these comments, all pertinent. I do think the bystander effect deserves to be considered. Also, a way to justify taking real responsiblity is to tell a superior and assume/rationalize that he/she has more power than you do and can report the crime with impunity. One of the most important factors, though, is tribalism, as someone pointed out. Tribalism is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. At the dawn of the time it was necessary for survival; it served as a shield against those who were thought to be a danger to us. It's at the root of bigotry and prejudice against those who are "different from us". And the instinct is strongest in patriarchial societies/organizations like football and the Catholic Church. I agree that no woman seeing such a thing going on would have hesitated to intervene and call the police. After all, the female instinct to protect children is even stronger than the male instinct to circle the wagons.

" After all, the female instinct to protect children is even stronger than the male instinct to circle the wagons."

Off the top of your head how often have you hear of a woman risking her life (icey river, burning building, etc...) to save the children? Now how often have you heard of a man doing it?

I don't think we should be talking about humans as if they were bears and only the women protect the kids...

I'm even more disturbed at the people looking at boys being victimized as a way to prop up women. You know darn well that boys and men have not had posters, commercials, and talks about their sexual victimization they way girls and women have. Male victims were not even allowed to be defined as rape victims by the fbi until *very* recently and VAWA is not set up for the victimization of males, including 14 year old boys who have been kicked out of dv homes they needed.

Our society clearly does not deal with the victimization of boys/men and were still not when we focus on "powerful men" instead of actually helping the victims with informative campains that depict boys/men as victims!

"I agree that no woman seeing such a thing going on would have hesitated to intervene and call the police. After all, the female instinct to protect children is even stronger than the male instinct to circle the wagons."

You mean like the school Oprah founded in which the female staff molested the female students and it was covered up?

Or the high rate of female staff exploiting minors in juvenile facilities?

“Approximately 95% of all youth reporting staff sexual miscon-
duct said they had been victimized by female staff. In 2008, 42% of staff in state juvenile facilities were female.”
From “Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2008-09″

>To be fair, I don’t think gender explains everything about the Penn State scandal. But I do think it’s noteworthy that this story only involves men.

That's really the only gender issue she could point out? Not the fact that the victims were boys, just like catholic church cover up that she pointed out!

Maybe male victims of sexual abuse aren't taken as serious and thus it could be easier to cover them up. Do you really think people would have reacted the same way if the male coach were molesting and raping girls? There is no way they would ever be afraid of losing there job if it were girl(s).

Yet, somehow this point escapes her entirely and she only focuses on the powerful *male*, while ignoring the issue of the victimized *male*. You know, the ones she supposedly cares about...

My mother never called the police after she found out that my godfather was molesting my brother and me. I never considered reporting him either. I felt sorry for him.

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