Why Joe had to go

With great power comes great responsibility.

— Uncle Ben to Peter Parker

We know approximately what then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno when he came to Paterno’s house the morning after witnessing the rape of a ten-year-old boy in the football locker room shower. That’s pretty much summarized in the grand jury presentment charging retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky with that rape and 39 other counts of sex crimes. (You can read the presentment here; be warned, however: it is one of the most sickening documents I’ve ever read.)

What I’d like to know is what Paterno said to McQueary.

There’s one thing I’m sure he did not say. He did not say, “Mike, you have to go to the police about this. Right now. Don’t even think about possible consequences to yourself. I’ve got your back on this. I’ll protect you from the athletic department, I’ll protect you from the administration. But you’ve got to report this.”

How do I know Paterno didn’t say this? Because if he had, McQueary would have gone right to the police. He would not have waited until he was subpoened by a grand jury nine years later.—

McQueary has come under heavy fire because he did nothing to stop the rape and did not go immediately to the police. His first response was to call his father, who told him he had to tell Paterno, his boss. While McQueary’s inaction might be hard to excuse, it is certainly understandable.

As a graduate assistant, McQueary was at the absolute bottom of the academic food chain. His first thought might well have been, “If I stop this or report it, it will be my word against his.” This is not an unreasonable worry. Victims of child sexual abuse are often too frightened or embarrassed to testify, so there might be no corroborating witness. And Sandusky, as an emeritus coach, was highly thought of in the Penn State community. McQueary also must have been aware that the local law enforcement apparatus, including the district attorney’s office, treat the Penn State football program with kid gloves. Football is big business in State College, PA, not only generating revenue for the university, but pouring millions of dollars into the local economy.

If McQueary’s charges went nowhere, he would have been up the proverbial creek. He would have been seen as a troublemaker, as someone bringing disrepute on Penn State’s legendary football program, thus endangering the university’s revenue stream. Even if the charges resulted in Sandusky’s prosecution, McQueary could still have found his career hopes dashed. All they would have to say is, “Mike, our budget has been cut, so we have to eliminate your assistantship.”

That’s why it’s important to know what Joe Paterno said to McQueary. Paterno held the real power here. There is no question but that he had the power to protect McQueary from retaliation, and there is also no question but that McQueary was aware of and trusted that power.

So it’s pretty clear that Paterno did not offer his protection to McQueary. And, because he failed to do so, he deserved to be fired. Which leads to the next question: did Paterno in any way try to discourage McQueary from going to the authorities? Did he say something like, “don’t say anything about this to anybody else. I’ll handle it.” If he did, then he got off too lightly.

I said above that McQueary’s response to the situation was “understandable”, if hard to excuse. Personally, I don’t excuse it. What’s his career — which consisted of teaching young men how to move an ellipsoid ball down a field while other young men try to stop them — compared to stopping the rape of a young boy? McQueary’s a big man. It would have been easy for him to pull the pervert off the kid, knee him in the groin, and keep him pinned to the floor until the police arrived. That he failed to do this can only be attributed to moral cowardice.

But McQueary’s moral failure is nothing compared to Joe Paterno’s. Because at Penn State, JoePa, as he is affectionately known, is unassailable. There was no way the athletic department or administration could threaten his career, and it’s not just because he was near the end of it. Had they tried to dismiss him because he refused to cover up a sex crime the resulting riots would have made the ones that erupted Wednesday in the wake of his firing look like a Thanksgiving parade.

Yes, it’s sad that such an illustrious career had to end this way. But it was necessary. Joe had to go.