Imagine you’re a 20-something, fairly new to a big time corporate job. It’s a pretty sweet gig, but you’re definitely the lowest man or woman on the totem pole.
You stop by your office one night and you witness your boss sexually assaulting a child. What do you do? Call the police? Intervene? Walk away?
The national fervor over the charges against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has raised a lot of questions about what all of us would do if we were faced with a similar situation. Frankly, most of the responses I’ve heard sound more than a little idealistic.
You’re not an editor. You’re not some preachy sports writer. You’re not even a fan in this scenario. You’re Mike McQueary, you’re a peon and you’ve just witnessed a heinous act.
What do you do?
Sandusky, who was once considered heir to the Penn State football throne behind former coach Joe Paterno, was arrested more than a week ago and charged with abusing eight young boys, some in the locker room of the Penn State football program, over a span of 15 years.
According to the grand jury presentment, McQueary, who was then a graduate assistant, witnessed Sandusky having anal sex with a child of about 10-years-old in a university locker room. Both Sandusky and the child saw McQueary as he stumbled upon the act, according to the presentment, but McQueary left the scene without intervening. Immediately afterward, he called his father, and the pair made the decision that he should tell Paterno about what he had witnessed.
McQueary has taken some serious heat for not doing more -– so much heat, that he has been put on administrative leave indefinitely and faces death threats from across the nation. He’s unlikely to be employed again in college football.
On Sunday, the York Daily Record managing editor Randy Parker criticized McQueary for not doing more, accusing him of “enslaving” a young boy. I have to fundamentally disagree, and it has a lot to do with the fact that I am in my 20s.
No one believes that the actions McQueary reportedly witnessed that day are anything short of heinous and wrong. As I read the grand jury presentment, McQueary’s testimony was by far the most gut wrenching. A grown man allegedly sodomizing a boy is a powerful and disturbing image. But to claim that you know what you would have done in that situation is ridiculous.
In 2002, McQueary would have been in his mid-twenties. Put yourself in his shoes. Do you step in at that moment? Do you immediately call police without processing what you just saw? That is exactly what many members of the public, including my own news organization, have called on McQueary to do, and I just don’t buy it. Doing either would have been McQueary signing his own death warrant.
The Penn State football program is, or perhaps was, a revered institution. At that age, McQueary was just a cog in the machine. He was a grad assistant, a peon, the lowest level of the legendary Penn State staff, and was certainly the first to go if he stirred the pot.
McQueary was not a standout football player. He had a decent record in his one year as the starting quarterback for Penn State, but he wasn’t drafted by the NFL. He was lucky to have a job. He’s just like all the other 20-somethings out there, desperately trying to hold onto the little piece of livelihood they have. McQueary is you, McQueary is me and he’s the only member of the coaching staff involved in this whole mess who I feel a little bit bad for.
Just because McQueary didn’t immediately intervene, doesn’t mean he allowed the alleged abuse to happen. He first consulted his own father, an action that was also criticized by Parker. But by my own newspaper’s accounts, McQueary’s father was his closest confidant. There is absolutely no shame in taking this to a parent. McQueary was in his twenties. Where else would you turn, but the person who raised you, taught you right from wrong and stood by you at all costs?
Together, the McQuearys decided that Paterno had to be notified. That could not have been an easy decision to come to as an entry-level staffer, but it was certainly a brave one. McQueary could have kept what he saw to himself or told a lower level superior. Instead he went straight to the top of the program, and reported the alleged abuse to the man who pulled the strings. I think McQueary’s actions took guts, and I like to think I would do the same in that situation.
In the last few days, it seems that McQueary has been contradicting his own story. Did he feel confident that his presence broke up the incident he witnessed? Did he later talk to police? It looks to me like he’s caving to all the pressure we’ve put on him, but he shouldn’t have to.
It’s easy to criticize when you sit at the top, when you are yourself are a manager or have years in your field. But before we condemn McQueary to hell and tell our children not to be like him, I think everyone needs to take a step back and remember what it was like to be a 20-something. This isn’t a black and white situation. We’re not all in a position to scream “No, stop that” from the hilltops. Some of us are peons, just thankful to live another day with a paycheck.
We are Mike McQueary.