Blaming Mike McQueary

The most common response I have heard about the Penn State football-child abuse scandal is that Mike McQueary should have notified the police, and that he should be punished.

McQueary was a graduate assistant coach at Penn State in 2002 when he allegedly observed Jerry Sandusky, emeritus Penn State coach, having anal intercourse with a child in Penn State's locker room shower. McQueary immediately called his father.

The next day, per his father's recommendation, McQueary called Penn State's legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, then went to Paterno's home to inform the coach of what he had seen. Paterno reported some version of what McQueary had told him to athletic director Tim Curley. Subsequently, McQueary met directly with Curley and Penn State finance vice president Gary Schultz to describe what he had seen.

And that was it. Nothing happened to Sandusky; nothing was done for the child, or any other children Sandusky had assaulted. Years later, when a grand jury uncovered these events, Curley and Schultz were charged with lying to the grand jury; then Penn State fired Paterno and University president Graham Spanier.

No immediate action was taken against McQueary, who had become coach of wide receivers for the team. At first he was to be kept out of Penn State's next game to protect him from irate fans. Then, the University's attitude towards McQueary shifted, as more public ire was directed at him. He has since been placed on administrative leave.

I don't believe McQueary will survive the ordeal. I admit that I have been shocked at how much anger is directed at him, including by commentators (MSNBC's "Morning Joe" spent most of his time dealing with the scandal lambasting McQueary), and including my 23-year-old, "downtown" New York daughter, who has friends who graduated Penn State. David Gregory, on NBC's Meet the Press, queried Governor Tom Corbett about why McQueary's father, as well as McQueary, was not charged with a crime! Corbett himself focused on McQueary, saying he failed in his "moral obligation."

But I think the University did the right thing by keeping McQueary on staff, while firing Paterno and Spanier. Of course, McQueary should have reported the crime he observed to the police. But how many other people would have? Indeed, how many others in fact observed suspicious behavior by Sandusky -- or his actual sexual assaults on children -- without saying anything to anyone? My bet is that there are several -- perhaps many -- such individuals.

We know something about how people like McQueary will react in comparable situations from psychological research. Remember the famous "obedience" experiments in which Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, told subjects to administer shocks to protesting recipients, who screamed in pain (these reactions were staged) -- up to claiming they were experiencing chest pain and then ceasing to respond altogether? Most subjects continued to shock them.

What does that have to do with the current situation, you may ask -- McQueary did nothing to anybody. Exactly. He not only did nothing to any victims, he reported what he had seen up the chain of command. Compare this with the standard Milgram experiment subject's behavior. And, keep in mind, those subjects accepted the power of an authority figure -- the experimenter -- whom they had just met. McQueary was dealing with an established hierarchy led by a man whose authority over Penn State football was unquestionable -- and this was a system in which McQueary devoutly wanted to advance his career.

I don't mean to give Penn State a pass. I think others in the University, including the trustees, and in the state, including Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, Ron Tomalis, who is a trustee of the University, should be investigated for their knowledge and possible roles in a cover-up. Indeed, even current and former Pennsylvania governors Tom Corbett -- who is not only a de facto member of the Penn State board of trustees, but was the State's attorney general when Sandusky's behavior toward children was first noted in the 1990s and began an investigation of Sandusky -- and Ed Rendell, who was governor during much of Sandusky's alleged reign of terror -- should be investigated for what they knew and may have ignored.

But these are officials responsible for the University's conduct, including its football program, and what occurred in and around it, as well as (in the persons of Tomalis, Corbett, and Rendell) for the safety of the children of Pennsylvania. McQueary was not. Do you imagine you would have done more if you were in his shoes? Because research and experience indicate that, if you are average, you wouldn't have.