The lesson from Penn State

It’s easy to pontificate about the tragedy of child abuse and rape at Penn State: Sandusky is a monster. Assistant coach Mike McQueary should have stopped the rape and called the police. Head coach Joe Paterno should have called the police. Athletic Director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary C. Schultz should have called the police, and all should have told the truth to law enforcement and to university officials.

Instead McQueary, upon seeing Sandusky—a bear of a man, big enough to have starred as a defensive end at Penn State—anally raping a 10-year old boy, went home and told his father what he had seen, and several days later told coaching legend Joe Paterno (he didn’t want to disturb Paterno on the weekend). Paterno passed something on to his athletic director. Nobody told the police, and Sandusky went on to brutalize young boys for several years. He’s now indicted on 40 counts of sexual abuse of children,

Everybody who knew about the incident was profoundly unethical, especially McQueary, whose responsibility was—at the very least—to stop the rape and to notify police. But after you condemn everybody involved in this horror, think about this: what would you have done in McQueary’s position?

You’re faced with a frightening and embarrassing sight. Your friend is committing a terrible crime. Would you shout STOP! and call the police? Would you think about the effect it would have on the football program that’s your professional life. Would you think about the consequences to you?

The lesson of Penn State is this: ethics isn’t automatic. Acting ethically is sometimes difficult. If your purpose is to live ethically, embrace that purpose beforehand, and you’ll respond instinctively. Absent this forethought you’ll have to think, and maybe like McQueary you’ll think about a reason not to do the right thing.

What would you have done? Are you sure?


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One Response to “The lesson from Penn State”

  1. Ethics Bob Says:

    A few hours after posting this i got an email from an old friend. Here’s what he had to say. Some identifying details were redacted.

    Dear Bob,

    Your article affected me immensely. I was the Chief Administrative Officer for __________. The son of one of our scientists was molested by the Director. Was witnessed by our ______ Officer. She got the young boy to a safe place and called me immediately.

    I called our contract doctor. The officer, the doctor and I took the boy home. Then had one of the most difficult conversations I have ever had in my life with his parents.

    The doctor examined the boy with his father present. Definite signs of abuse. Luckily the director was on contract . I fired him immediately [and notified law enforcement]. He was arrested immediately and ended up in prison.

    I was physically ill at the end of that day. Got back home and threw up for hours. I can’t imagine how these Penn State folks ended up passing the buck. I was horrified. Can’t imagine how those witnessing/or higher up folks could sleep at night. The first rule of humanity is keep the children safe.

    The boy in question has grown into a good responsible man. Sad part was his dad suffered a bad stroke a few days afterwards. Took early retirement.

    Thank you for highlighting an important issue. Please do not use any specific details to pass on. I just wanted you to know- that you were on spot with this one.


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