Commentary

Authority figures failed those who gave their trust

jrice@centredaily.comNovember 8, 2011 

This is not a sports story. This is a story about people in positions of authority and the people who trusted them. It just so happens that those people played and still play central roles in the area’s prominent sports program.

Jerry Sandusky was in a position of authority, a position he had earned from years as both a respected football coach and the leader of a charitable organization that helped thousands of youngsters. He was trusted by the players he coached and the youths that came into his program and his alleged actions that were thrust into the public eye this week — 40 counts of sexual abuse — betrayed that trust.

Joe Paterno was in a position of authority three years after Sandusky had retired, when then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary (now Penn State’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator) informed him that he had allegedly seen Sandusky and a young boy in the locker room doing, in the words

Paterno used when he testified before the grand jury “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy.”

Paterno also testified that he reported McQueary’s story to athletic director Tim Curley and administrator Gary Schultz, who were also in positions of great authority.

When you read the 23-page grand jury presentment today, nearly a full decade later, and you think of how many of those alleged acts could have been avoided had someone — Curley, Schultz, Paterno, McQueary, even Penn State president Graham Spanier — done more, you shudder. You shake your head in frustration, in bewilderment.

What could they or should they have done? This is the nagging question that will hang in the air for years. We all would like to think that we would act a certain way in certain situations — that we’d be a rock for our spouses if a family member died, that we’d fess up if we made a costly mistake at the office.

That we would turn in a trusted colleague and friend if we suspected him of an unspeakable crime.

But we don’t know how we act until we’re put in those situations. And, as it pertains to the case at hand, we don’t know precisely what Paterno or Curley or Spanier or McQueary knew. We have a sickening idea of what they knew thanks to the grand jury findings.

We also know that they barred Sandusky from bringing children to campus, which is troubling any way you look at it. If they believed that Sandusky was just “horsing around” with the boy, that nothing smelled foul, why would they prevent him from bringing kids to campus? And if they did believe that something wasn’t right, why didn’t they follow up on the matter?

You know the words to your alma mater, Penn State fans: “May no act of ours bring shame …”

Shameful is not a word that even begins to describe Sandusky’s alleged actions. But what’s nearly as disturbing is the failure of those in and around the program to act when they heard about the incident involving Sandusky and a young boy in the Lasch Building locker room in 2002.

That’s why we put people in places of authority — we expect them to act, to make the right decision, to uphold our trust in them and especially the trust of the youngsters placed in their supervision. When issues requiring firm leadership come to their attention, when they have opportunities to act and they do not, they become accountable for whatever happens after that inaction.

Whether Sandusky is convicted of any or all of these charges or not, there was a serious flaw in the chain of command. Whether or not he is convicted as a sexual predator or exonerated, the fact remains that men in positions of authority, by their inactions, allowed him to walk around for eight years before the state investigation finally got under way.

Paterno made his legend as a winner of games and a molder of men. He has done so much good for so many of his players. He values loyalty. He values accountability. For decades, he has been loyal to his players and his coaches. He has been accountable and held them accountable for everything from dropped passes to cut classes. He has made a career of seeing things through.

That’s what makes his shared failure to follow up on what McQueary witnessed so mind-boggling.

“It was obvious that the witness was distraught over what he saw, but he at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report,” Paterno said in the statement he released Sunday. “Regardless, it was clear that the witness saw something inappropriate involving Mr. Sandusky.”

Something inappropriate? First of all, that’s different than the language Paterno used before the grand jury. But is there ever an

instance when it’s appropriate for a 58-year-old man to be in the shower with a young boy?

You can say that McQueary did his job by telling Paterno, that Paterno did what was required of him by reporting the incident to Curley and Schultz. But wasn’t Paterno ever curious that nothing ever came of those inappropriate actions?

What will be debated and discussed for the next few weeks or months or even years will be what, exactly, McQueary saw, what he conveyed to Paterno and Curley and Schultz. What should remain the point is what, collectively, these leaders of the state’s largest university did about it.

They’re the ones who will have to ask themselves for the rest of their lives if they did enough.

Jeff Rice covers Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4609 or jrice@centredaily.com.

 

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