Thursday, December 15, 2011

McQueary's Reaction

With my usual timeliness, I would like to comment on the Penn State situation now that it has been out of the news for several weeks.  What struck me most was how hard people came down on Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who witnessed some sort of inappropriate behaviour between Sandusky and a young boy in 2002.  I'm used to this sort of thing from sports news columnists, but I was surprised to see it at the usually calmer National Review.  The gist is this:  McQueary witnessed a rape in the PSU showers in 2002, and did not stop it, even though he was physically larger and stronger than the assailant.  Why did he wait until the next day to report it rather than intervening immediately?

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with David Brooks in this case.  His position, and mine, is that people have overestimated their own probable response had they been in McQueary's position.  I have read a number of comments to the effect that "I would have intervened immediately and stopped the rape," which, while it seems like a reasonable reaction, is rather too self-confident for my tastes.  First, as Brooks points out, no one knows what he will do when confronted with such a bizarre and disturbing scene.  One of my chief lessons in life has been that it is easy to condemn cowardly or stupid behaviour when one is hearing reports of what someone else did; actually being in that situation, however, is another thing entirely.  McQueary was in his mid-20's, and Sandusky  had been on the coaching staff during his (recent) career.  The mere fact of seeing an older authority figure in such compromising activity would have caused brain freeze in virtually all of us.  That's not to say that we shouldn't or couldn't have overcome it, but if his first reaction was to go somewhere else to gather his wits, I hardly find that surprising or greatly reprehensible.

Second, we don't know exactly what McQueary witnessed.  The more egregious the crime, the greater the responsibility to react immediately.  If Sandusky had been beating the child to death, no doubt we would expect McQueary to stop it.  Anal rape would warrant reaction on a similar level, but was that what he saw?  What kind of inappropriate behaviour did he witness, and was it so inappropriate and damaging that it required immediate action?  What were the consequences of the action continued?  Is it reasonable that McQueary might have needed to think through his reaction?

Clearly, McQueary did respond eventually, reporting what he witnessed to the appropriate authorities.  What we have to criticize him for, if anything, is only his spontaneous reaction to a single incident.  Paterno, however, is another matter, and here I differ from Brooks.  As an authority figure himself, and one responsible for Sandusky and everyone else associated with the football team, Paterno's burden was to act on the information.  Moreover, Paterno had time to consider his response -- nearly 10 years, in fact.  There is no excuse for his continuing to tolerate Sandusky's presence with the Penn State football team, and arguably he should have done more to make sure the accusations were investigated and, if appropriate, punished.  But this is also dependent on what Paterno heard, and we don't know that for sure, either.  He may have heard something that should have stimulated a strong response, or he may not; and that may reflect back on McQueary.  However, we are in no position to judge that.  The information will come out, I hope, at the trial, and the guilty will be held responsible.  In the meantime, we can only outline hypotheticals.

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