Like many, I have watched with some measure of nausea the events surrounding the Penn State University sexual abuse scandal.
The Freeh Report has concluded that beginning in 1998 (!) the university knew what was going on and covered up the horrors of Jerry Sandusky’s menacing, perverted sexual control and abuse of innocent children.
There is talk that the grand statue on campus of Joe Paterno should be demolished. The argument for: it doesn’t matter how many good things the late coach did, the one horrifying thing he did has sullied his reputation and legend forever. The argument against: He did 500 good things. He should be remembered for those.
There are rumbles the football program at Penn State might be inflicted with the death penalty, a cessation of football activities for an as yet undetermined length of time.
For me, this whole mess centers on three elements:
#1: I have never read anything anywhere of a moment where Joe Paterno called Sandusky into his office and said, “Jerry, what the hell is going on?”
#2: Is the protection of a football program (usually a separate fiefdom with little accountability) at a major university so essential that it’s determined serial child rape is less important than game prep for Saturday?
#3: Why didn’t the people who witnessed Sandusky raping call the cops?
We’ll probably never know the answer to #1. As for #2, we know that college football is a mirror of real life – there is corruption, greed and inequities.
Louis Free, citing the account of a janitor who witnessed one Sandusky sodomy and said nothing, said (paraphrasing) , “If it’s like this at the bottom, can you imagine what it’s like at the top?”
If you saw something and said nothing, are you culpable?
If you saw something and “followed procedure”, did you do right by that kid Sandusky was having his way with in the shower?
Former receivers coach Mike McQueary is a central figure in this nightmare. He has ben pilloried for doing the legally right thing (reporting an incident to university officials) but not doing the morally right thing (calling the police, stopping the “horseplay”, etc.)
When you see or read something at work that you know is unethical/immoral/illegal, what do you do?
It’s so easy for us to spout righteous indignation, proclaiming that we would have dropped a dime on the corporate robber baron and the sinister politician. But when the rubber hits the road, would you risk your job for revealing the sins of others?
We have, sadly, ample evidence that statues are not erected for whistleblowers. More often, they are rendered penniless and unemployable.
The wave of pushback from the accused is so overwhelming that it often is impossible for people with a strong moral compass to continue their careers. Nobody wants to hire the tattletale.
Doing the right thing doesn’t always make you a hero. You think to yourself, “It doesn’t have anything to do with me. I’m not going to get involved…”
What does it mean to be “honest”?
Our morality is unique – shaped by our parents, our youth, and our inner GPS.
If you saw something, would you say something?
I think I join you in dreading the moments we have to ask ourselves that question.
John Scott is the National Online Learning Coordinator and a media history instructor at the School of Multimedia Communications, Academy of Art University, San Francisco. He also counsels clients and groups on the art of reinvention.
His debut book Broken Glass and Barbed Wire will be released soon.
Follow John on Twitter @johnscottsf.