The Inexplicable Events at Penn State

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Like everyone else around here, I'm trying to wrap my brain around exactly what happened at Penn State. Until yesterday, I had been somewhat vague on exactly what the graduate student saw; naturally, I'd assumed it was considerably more ambiguous than the grade jury report suggests. How do you walk in on someone clearly having anal sex with a 10-year old, and then walk out again?


(I apologize for the graphic description, but a surprising number of people, as I was, seem to be a bit confused about what the graduate student actually saw.  The answer turns out to be "almost the worst thing you can imagine".)

Actually, I can forgive the walking out. No, really, I can. I can imagine myself walking in on a scene so horrible that I couldn't quite believe that it was actually happening. I can imagine it taking me as long as five minutes to convince myself that no, really, it actually happened, and either walk back in there and do the right thing, or fetch someone else who would do it with me.

Like everyone else, however, I cannot imagine how a bunch of people somehow tacitly agreed not to do anything about it.  There's been a lot of soul-searching (and schadenfreude) about the "culture" of football. And to be sure, I just learned the rules of football a few super-bowls ago, so I can't claim to know much about what that culture is like . . . but up until this week, I hadn't heard that that culture particularly celebrated men raping little boys. In fact, I thought it was the sort of ultra-macho world where a guy caught anally raping a little boy would have gotten a life-threatening beat-down, not a cover-up.  So this explanation doesn't seem very satisfying.

Nor are the laments about the power of football programs, and ambitious coaches willing to do anything to advance their careers. I mean, I am sure that there are a lot of people out there who fit that description, but it doesn't answer the main question: how did covering up for child rapists become career-advancing?  How did a large group of people somehow tacitly agree to protect a serial offender guilty of just about the worst crime imaginable in American society?

With most of the scummy stuff that happens at companies or institutions, there's some pretty clear purpose for it. You cheat on your taxes or illegally dump your toxic waste or violate NCAA recruiting rules or procure hookers for the clients because hey, you make more money that way. But no one has articulated any clear reason that any of the people involved should have declined to call the police. There must be some reason, but I don't know what it is. Talking about the hierarchy and clannishness and self-protection of the football program describes the mechanism by which the secret was kept, but they do not explain the keeping.

Strangely, this is the most plausible explanation I've seen so far:

Madden stated that two "prominent columnists" are currently investigating a rumor that Jerry Sandusky's Second Mile Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed to serve underprivileged youths, was "pimping out young boys to rich (Penn State) donors." Madden went on to say that Jerry Sandusky was told by those running the show at Penn State football that Sandusky had to retire after allegations made in 1998 that the defensive coordinator was guilty of "improper conduct with an underage male." Sandusky, thought by some to be Joe Paterno's successor at the time, abruptly and somewhat shockingly retired from coaching in 1999.

It actually gets worse. Madden went on to say "When Sandusky quit, everybody knew; not just at Penn State. It was a very poorly kept secret around college football, in general. That is why he never coached in college football again and retired at the relatively young age of 55, young for a coach." Madden also called the Second Mile Foundation "the perfect cover" for Sandusky's scheme.

I want to be absolutely clear about a few things. These reports, as of the writing of this piece, are coming only from Mark Madden, and they are currently only rumors and speculation. With that said, Mark Madden has been mostly correct about a grand jury investigation which was sealed until very recently. I'm not suggesting that I 100 percent believe Madden to be correct. I'm certainly not ignoring a word he's saying regarding the Sandusky case at this point.

Late Wednesday evening after Joe Paterno was fired by Penn State, an "in the know" individual told me that this story was going to get uglier, and that there were, at the very least, "dozens of more victims."
At least it offers a motive.  And yet . . . it seems completely implausible.  How does one go about marketing one's alumni relations department as a potential procurer of underage boys for wealthy pedophiles who perhaps also happen to be fans of the Nittany Lions? And how do you make sure that no one--in the department or elsewhere--tells the police?  I find these rumors basically impossible to believe.

But I certainly understand how they could have gotten started.  They fill in the great blank spot at the center of our understanding.  And it desperately needs filling.

But perhaps because the heart of the darkness seems so incomprehensible, we've mostly been talking around the edges--stating the obvious, over and over, as if the mantra could reassure.  It really goes without saying that we are outraged and saddened by these events--I literally almost vomited upon reading some of the grand jury report.  We are all agreed that this is awful, and also that yes, we should never forget the potential for evil that breathes within all of us.  It is virtually redundant to note that everyone involved in this scandal should be fired, and made to feel their bleak shame for the rest of their lives.

Saying all these things may be necessary, but it is not sufficient.  We're all still left with a large, unanswered "why?"  I am fundamentally a cynic: I believe that people will do almost any awful thing.  But I need a reason.  And I cannot find one in any of this.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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