A Different Perspective On The Paterno Issue

The real problems at Penn State aren't just going away now that Joe Paterno is gone.

Let me start out by saying that I think the PSU Trustees made the right decision in firing Joe Paterno. If things had happened differently, perhaps they could have found a way for him to coach the final games of his career, and his final game at Happy Valley, but the circumstances of the Sandusky case simply don’t permit it. I also found the rioting last night in State College to be pretty appalling, although perhaps that could have been alleviated had the university done a better job of communicating the reasons for the Board of Trustees decision to the Penn State community. A late night press conference three days before Game Day isn’t the way to do that, in my opinion. I also think that Mike McQueary, the then Graduate Assistant and now Wide Receivers Coach of the Nittany Lions, who saw a child being raped and didn’t stop it, should be fired immediately. All of that said, I found interesting this insight that Rod Dreher passed along from a reader that, if not excusing the way Paterno and Mike McQueary acted, at least partly explains it:

Rod, You need to know the culture of college campuses regarding these kinds of issues. As an administrator (a department chair) I have taken the “sexual harassment” online course that we all have to take (indeed, as a faculty member I had to do it again!). The correct answer to every scenario is the same: do nothing and report it to the appropriate administrator. “If true,” Paterno did exactly what university policies all over the nation ask us to do: nothing. The institutions have bureaucratized how they deal with these kinds of accusations. For fear of lawsuit, this whole area, that of sexual harassment/abuse, has been turned over to bureaucratic professionals housed in the legal and human resources wings of our universities. One can guess that Paterno told the appropriate division of his institution and was then told by university legal counsel to keep his mouth shut.

I do not wish to give Paterno (or anyone else) a pass. I will withhold judgment until I know more. But if we wish to be indignant, let’s spare some of that indignation for a system that doesn’t allow people to do the right thing for fear of violating bureaucratic policy and courting lawsuits. What someone needed to do was beat Jerry Sandusky senseless and throw him to the cops. But that would get you a wrong answer on the online Sexual Harassment Policy test.

One rejoinder, of course, is that this really isn’t a sexual harassment issue, it’s a sexual assault issue. According to his own testimony, what McQuery witnessed in the showers at the athletic facility was felony child abuse and rape. When you’re witnessing something like that, it seems really strange to think that you’re mind goes back to the sexual harassment training seminar you took a year or two ago and use that as your guide for what to do. I suppose it’s possible, though. In Paterno’s case, he did what those rules, and Pennsylvania law, require him to do, and reported up the chain of command to the Athletic Director, which is where the whole mess fell apart when administrators failed to follow up.

Was it “the system” that ultimately let Jerry Sandusky get away in 2002? That’s not clear, but it certainly seems to have contributed to the way the matter was handled. In that case, the actors certainly still deserve to be punished for what they failed to do, but if Penn State doesn’t take a look at its rules and the culture that grew up around its football program, then they’re making it possible for something like this to happen again.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Education, Sports, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Vast Variety says:

    The kind of heinous criminal act that Sandusky committed is why I continue to support the death penalty. I wish it was applied to these sorts of crimes.

  2. JKB says:

    Ah, yes, they were all good little bureaucrats. Well, sometimes to be a man, you have to not be a bureaucrat and accept that doing the right thing will cause the bureaucrats to come after you. But you still want to be a man and not a sniveling follower of subsection 9 of the sexual harassment handbook.

    This is especially bad in that there is no way the university could have gone after Paterno for stepping outside the handbook and doing the right thing. Plus, there isn’t a police chief, sheriff or Director of the state police who wouldn’t take his call and let him know if the report had made it to the proper authorities. Discreetly.

  3. In Pennsylvania, at least, Paterno and McQueary would have been quite protected had they gone to the police:

    18 PA CSA 4957:

    § 4957. Protection of employment of crime victims, family
    members of victims and witnesses.
    (a) General rule.–An employer shall not deprive an employee
    of his employment, seniority position or benefits, or threaten
    or otherwise coerce him with respect thereto, because the
    employee attends court by reason of being a victim of, or a
    witness to, a crime or a member of such victim’s family. Nothing
    in this section shall be construed to require the employer to
    compensate the employee for employment time lost because of such
    court attendance.
    (b) Penalty.–An employer who violates subsection (a)
    commits a summary offense.
    (c) Civil remedy available.–If an employer penalizes an
    employee in violation of subsection (a), the employee may bring
    a civil action for recovery of wages and benefits lost as a
    result of the violation and for an order requiring the
    reinstatement of the employee. Damages recoverable shall not
    exceed wages and benefits actually lost. If he prevails, the
    employee shall be allowed a reasonable attorney fee fixed by the

    The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in Rodgers v. Lorentz (http://www.palaborandemploymentblog.com/uploads/file/A2628922.PDF) that this covers retaliating against an employee for filing, in good faith, a police report against the employer’s wishes (on the ground that this is essentially retaliating against the employee for planning to appear in court in the future).

  4. PD Shaw says:

    Seems to be a confusion of ideas: what are the steps necessary to avoid/limit civil liability, and what to do when a crime is being committed? If it was a boy being stabbed in the shower, would you fill out the paperwork and submit it on time to the proper authorities?

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    This is very much like the Catholic Church it was more important to protect the institution than to protect the past, present and future victims. Legal issues aside I really don’t understand how Paterno and others could even stand to be in the same room with Sandusky knowing what he had done and was likely to do.

  6. Frank says:

    Paterno got away with lying to the grand jury because the prosecutor didn’t press the point. When he’s called to testify in court he’ll be charged with contempt if he sticks to that unlikely story — that McQueary didn’t tell him precisely what he saw.

  7. Nikki says:

    The correct answer to every scenario is the same: do nothing and report it to the appropriate administrator.

    This type of response isn’t just limited to universities. You see the same thing in the federal government where we are told to report incidents to security and let them call 911. However, I hope that I am sufficiently sympathetic, empathetic, immersed in Christian charity, that if I find myself in a situation like the grad assistant’s, my first instinct would be to help the victim in whatever capacity is needed–cops, ambulance…whatever it takes.

  8. steve says:

    For Paterno, responsibility is a key issue. As the head of the program it was his responsibility to report this, and it was also his responsibility to follow up. He should have had Sandusky in and directly questioned him. If any of my employees was accused of such behavior, I would not let it go until it was resolved. (FTR, I fully agree with those above who note the difference between sexual harassment and assault.)


  9. MBunge says:

    “One rejoinder, of course, is that this really isn’t a sexual harassment issue, it’s a sexual assault issue.”

    But to some extent, this mess is another version of what we’ve seen in the past when it comes to rape and sexual assault on college campuses. By both tradition and law, colleges function far more like independent municipalities than simiar size businesses, so there’s an impulse to deal with any wrong doing through internal college procedures. But such protocols are simply incapable of handling anycriminality that exceeds a certain level.

    Also, there is no excuse for how this matter was handled on reflection. If there was enough known for Sandusky to lose/resign his job, there was enough known for the police to be called. However, everybody always likes to think that in these kind of situations they would instantly know what to do and instantly do it without hesitation. That if they were told their friend of 30 years, someone they love, someone as close to them as a member of their family, committed such a terrible crime, they would totally and automaticaly throw that relationship away and “do the right thing”. That if they saw an authority figure, someone they’d looked up to and followed since childhood, doing something so awful, they’d step in and stop it without question. We’d all like to think that, but a fairly common reaction is just refusing to acknowledge the problem and hoping it goes away.


  10. this really isn’t a sexual harassment issue, it’s a sexual assault issue.

    Indeed, which obviates the point in the quoted text.

    Indeed, I would go beyond “this really isn’t” and straight to “that was sexual assault” and that is not what the bureaucratized sexual harassment process being described are designed to deal with.

    Moreover, not only was it sexual assault, it was sexual assault of a small child.

    The more I type this comment, the more I find that the “the bureaucracy is at fault” line of reasoning to be utter BS.

  11. Hey Norm says:

    I hope Sandusky has enjoyed his life to this point…because from here forward it is going to really suck. Inmates, I hear, are very fond of child molesters.

  12. @MBunge:

    However, everybody always likes to think that in these kind of situations they would instantly know what to do and instantly do it without hesitation. That if they were told their friend of 30 years, someone they love, someone as close to them as a member of their family, committed such a terrible crime, they would totally and automaticaly throw that relationship away and “do the right thing”.

    If the police had been contacted a few days or weeks later, I could buy this as an explanation. But they had 9 years to come to grips with it and still did nothing. Indeed, if it weren’t for a small high school where coaches and administrators no one will ever remember did the right thing, we’d STILL be waiting for the great moral icons of Penn State to do something about this problem.

  13. MBunge says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “If the police had been contacted a few days or weeks later, I could buy this as an explanation.”

    Yeah, there is no defense for not eventually going to the cops. But we’ve seen this same sort of denial so often in cases of sex abuse within families that we probably should stop thinking about it as some sort of abberant reaction.


  14. Rick Almeida says:


    Pretty much this.

    I hope there is a specific place in hell for those “men” who personally observe the rape of a child, turn around, call daddy, and leave the building.

  15. Steve Verdon says:

    @Vast Variety:

    Right nobody is ever falsely convicted of child sex abuse and rape….

  16. george says:

    I’ve heard a number of explanations of why Penn State didn’t press charges on Sandursky – but I’ve yet to hear any of why they didn’t quietly “release” him. Isn’t that the normal procedure for a big institution which doesn’t want to sully its name: get rid of embarrassments by giving them a golden handshake? The only thing I can come up with is that they didn’t think child-rape was a big deal, which kind of boggles the mind.

  17. James Joyner says:

    Fully concur with Steven L. Taylor‘s comment on this. This isn’t a case of Sandusky being accused of grabbing a co-ed’s ass but rather him being caught raping a 10-year-old boy in the locker room. To paraphrase my man Jules, that ain’t the same ball park. It ain’t the same league. It ain’t even the same sport.

  18. george says:

    Never mind, turns out Sandusky “retired” at age 55 the next year … the usual golden handshake used to protect an institution.

  19. JKB says:

    This wasn’t your normal bureaucracy. It was an incestuous “family”

    R. Scott Kretchmar, who was Penn State’s NCAA faculty representative from 2000 to 2010, likened the university’s “tragic” response to that of a family concerned for one of its own.

    “There is a greater tendency to forgive, give a second chance, protect the reputation of the family. At a very human level, we do that with our biological families,” said Mr. Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science. “We don’t want to see anyone in the family hurt. Penn State has been a tight-knit family, and in some ways that might have hurt us in this situation.”

    Those involved are the product of the university, the employees of the university for almost all their lives. This is Penn State.

  20. @Steve Verdon: As if convictions are even necessary. Merely the accusation is usually enough to ruin lives. Sort of like, oh, never mind.

  21. Also, this is a tragedy on so many levels. I have no more evidence that I what I can read online but it seems rather damning. I have nothing but contempt for the good men who apparently allowed evil to triumph by doing nothing for so long.

  22. Ron Beasley says:

    John Scalzi:

    Here’s what I think about that, right now. I’m a science fiction writer, and one of the great stories of science fiction is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was written by Ursula K. LeGuin. The story posits a fantastic utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.

    At Pennsylvania State University, a grown man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia — or at very least the illusion of their utopia — was worth the pain and suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made.

  23. Rob in CT says:

    Setting aside that it was almost assuredly not just one child, and that the raping of the child wasn’t the basis for the “utopia” and that… oh fuck it.

  24. Just finished reading the grand jury testimony. This is very, very bad.

  25. @charles austin: Agreed. Once one has read the grand jury report, all benefit of the doubt for those involved goes out the window.

  26. Liberty60 says:

    I don’t think that we can lay the blame on some bureaucratic system, as if everyone involved wanted to do the right thing, but gosh, those rules just forbade it.

    If this was an member of the maintenance crew raping a boy, would anyone have protected him?

    Institutions protect the powerful members, and ignore the powerless.

  27. One more observation, it is hard for Joe Paterno’s apologists to absolve him of his responsibilities by reporting to his superiors when you read in the report that he summoned his “boss” to his home on Sunday to tell him about it.

  28. Steve Verdon says:

    @charles austin:

    No kidding. It wasn’t something bad…bad things can wait until Monday. This was a horrible thing that needed immediate attention. Children were being raped on campus in his locker room. People whom he knew and who reported to him learned of these things and did pretty much nothing. And when he learned of it, he did pretty much nothing either.

  29. Given that Nebraska is now worried about the safety of their players at Penn State this weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if Penn State doesn’t play another game this year.

  30. David Wainwright says:

    I served on the judicial board of a small college for three years, and I’ve read extensively about colleges’ internal investigation and disciplinary procedures, and they’re almost all bad. As a general rule, colleges overemphasize minor incidents (e.g., parking violations, underage drinking), but downplay serious crimes. To make matters worse, irrespective of evidence or severity, the conclusion of almost any college disciplinary hearing is that the person is guilty but can be reformed. For example, Penn State decided that Sandusky was guilty of molesting a boy in the shower, but decided taking away his locker privleges was the appropriate punishment to correct his behavior.

    I’m not sure of what the correct solution is. Colleges have long operated as autonomous, quasi-governmental entities that have their own police or security, and dispense their own justice. On some level, that creates a sense of community, and let’s minor issues be resolved without arrests and lawsuits. However, there has to be a limit to a college’s jurisdiction. If two students get into a shoving match, that can be handled internally. But, if a student is shot or stabbed , I think outside police need to be called in. I would like other people’s opinion on this?

  31. @David Wainwright: FWIW, at Penn State at least, they have their own police force which has complete jurisidiction over the campus. So if a student is shot or stabbed on campus it will be dealt with by the PSU Campus Police.