Joe Paterno and the Truth Right In Front of Our Eyes

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We are biased to believe in the innocence of those we admire -- even when they have blood on their hands

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How on earth could Joe Paterno, the legendary coach at Penn State, not have been so outraged at the allegations of child abuse by his colleague Jerry Sandusky that he would have raged to the University to do something and followed up aggressively, or reported it to not just the University, but the local police? 
"Shifting our view of someone to match the truth changes not only our future with them, but our past, as well. We are forced to examine every memory we have with them and readjust it downward."

Was it a big Penn State cover-up job to save the reputation of the football program? Did Paterno make a cold calculation to put friendship and football ahead of little boys? Did he just not care? Is he a moral coward? 

I don't know. None of us do, really. Getting inside someone else's mind is almost impossible. It's also easy, from the outside, to say what should have happened, with an implied sense of certainty of "that's what we would have done" if we'd been in that someone's shoes. But to be in someone else's shoes isn't just to be in that person's situation. It's to have all the unique emotional ties, views, history, and complications that differ with each individual, but that all of us have within us. 

Oddly enough, I find the Herman Cain situation informative in trying to figure out how those elements might come into play for Paterno -- or the rest of us. Gloria Cain went on TV Monday night to defend her husband. She knew him, she argued, and the man she knew could not have done the harassing of women that three different women say he did. Perhaps she was just touting a brave line, but she seemed sincere. And in truth, I think she probably was sincere--even though lawyers I've talked to who specialize in harassment and civil rights in the workplace say that companies do not hand out the equivalent of a year's salary unless they're facing a very credible and serious case. 

Is Gloria Cain being willfully ...or subconsciously ... blind? If she is, she wouldn't be the first. 

In truth, I've noticed a somewhat embarrassing tendency in myself to be much quicker to believe accusations of people I don't inherently like (or whose politics I don't inherently like) than those I admire or agree with. And that's true of people with whom I don't even have a personal connection. My guess is that many, if not most, of the people staunchly defending Cain, and judging the accusers harshly, like Herman Cain for one reason or another. And the first to jump on the "guilty" bandwagon were probably those who didn't like him, or his politics, anyway. Why? Because it's easier to believe bad things of, or be happy about bad turns of fortune for, people we don't like.

But if we like, admire, or want someone to remain professionally powerful because we think they'll do good things there, it's very, very hard to believe flaws that would not only force us to readjust our view of them in a negative way, but might also cost us their professional contributions. Just look at how slow ardent feminists were to believe any of the women who said President Clinton had had affairs with them. 

I don't know Joe Paterno. And I'm not a huge fan of college football; indeed, I think colleges put far too much money and emphasis on that one sport. But I always thought Paterno was a pretty decent guy, based on a couple of specific data points I had on how he approached football. First, I always admired the fact that he wouldn't put players' names on their jerseys. There were no divas on the Penn State team, just team players. He was the only coach I knew of who did that. 

Some 30 years ago, he also arranged for Penn State to play his alma mater, Brown University, where I was a student at the time. The game was played at Penn State, and the colleges reportedly split the gate, which would have been a huge fundraising coup for lowly-ranked Brown. But as a student, what I remember was, he didn't humiliate our team. Our guys didn't even come up to the shoulders of some of the Penn State starters. But Paterno put in his first-string, then his second-string, then his third-string players, allowing Brown to escape with a 21-38 score and its dignity intact. That act of restraint impressed me.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that showing restraint at a mismatched football contest or having a team approach to football players excuses or compensates for allowing, or enabling, child molestation to occur, to whatever degree it turns out that Paterno did that. What I am saying is that because I've had a positive view of him in the past, it's harder for me to believe the worst of him than it is for someone who didn't have that existing vision. And I don't even care for college football. So I imagine the same dynamic is at play on many levels in this case, including the students at Penn State who are so ardently defending Paterno, because they're far more attached to him than I am.  

And attachment matters. If it's hard to negatively adjust our view of someone when all we have is a observer's notion of them or their work, even if the truth is in front of our eyes, it is orders of magnitude harder if we have an emotional or personal attachment to them. It's why spouses are often the last to realize that their mate is cheating on them, even when everyone else saw the signs clearly for some time. "How could you not know? And how could you not do anything?" incredulous friends find themselves asking a devastated spouse whose scales have finally, belatedly, fallen from their eyes. There are even spouses who manage to convince themselves that their boyfriend or spouse is not abusing their children, when the evidence is clearly there for them to see. How does that happen?

Many reasons, but two factors play a big part. The first is that, when we have a positive vision of what a person close to us is, if we then see or believe evidence that runs contrary to that, we have to let go of that vision -- and that's incredibly difficult. We thought our spouse, friend, colleague or admired public servant was "A." We invested in that image. We attached ourselves to it. Our confidence in our ability to judge people (which is what allows us to trust people in our lives) is intertwined in it, as well. So while an outsider can make the reality shift from "A" to a far less attractive "B" relatively easily, it's much harder for friends, relatives, and supporters to make that shift. 

Making that shift also has consequences. Obviously, there are physical consequences, because we may have to leave a person we counted on for income, status, or a lifestyle. Our dreams of the future are shattered, as well. But the consequences go beyond even the messiness of all that. For shifting our view of someone to match the truth changes not only our future with them, but our past, as well. We are forced to examine every memory we have with them and readjust it downward. Cherished memories can become painful, tainted things that haunt us ever after in the middle of the night. Realizations of things that weren't true. That we missed. Of the consequences that we allowed to happen because of that.  

So we make excuses. We come up with explanations that don't require that kind of painful shift.We rationalize and avert our conscious, rational, clear-seeing eyes.  And we've all done it, at one time or another. 

There are other factors in the mix as well, of course. I talked this week to a former director of a non-profit organization that worked with inner city kids in New York, who said the Penn State incident had made her rethink an incident many years ago in her own organization, when her staff suspected that one of the kids in their program was being abused at home. She reported their suspicions to the Administration of Child Services, as the law required--but never followed up to see if anything was done about it. She now wondered if maybe she shouldn't have done more. 

How many people who report harassment, abuse, or other suspicions up the line, as required, then assume that what should be done is being done by someone else? I don't know the answer, but it's a question worth asking, as we decide who and how to judge. 

We also don't always act, in the moment, as highly as we say we would, in the vacuum of a laboratory or our tranquil, distant living rooms. David Brooks reported this week on several studies that showed a huge gap between how people said they would react in a situation and how they actually responded, when researchers created just that kind of situation for them. 

None of this excuses the lapses at Penn State. Clearly, the ball got dropped somewhere along the administrative line -- and potentially not just by University officials (if reports that the graduate assistant who witnessed the 2002 incident in the showers actually spoke to police about it at the time turn out to be true.) Egregious damage to children was left unchecked. And those responsible need to be held to account. 

But if we don't always follow up as we should, or act as we should, or are tragically reticent to believe the truth in front of our eyes, it's not necessarily because we see the facts clearly and make a cold, calculating, conscious decision, for our own agendas, to look the other way. Perhaps, if Herman Cain is guilty of harassment, Gloria Cain's response was that of a hard-hitting political animal. And perhaps Joe Paterno consciously chose to put his football program ahead of children by how he reported the incident in question, or by not doing more to follow up. But it's also possible that their responses reflect a very human flaw and failing that all of us fall prey to, to some degree, when we are either too quick to judge someone we don't know or like, or too slow to believe the worst of someone we thought we knew well. 
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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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