May 22, 2018
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Joe Paterno, bystander

Gene J. Puskar | AP
Gene J. Puskar | AP
Then-Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno (left) and assistant coach Mike McQueary stand on the sidelines during an NCAA college football game against Eastern Michigan in State College, Pa, earlier this year.
By Alexandra Petri, The Washington Post

I don’t know college football. It’s that thing that is on TV in the background as I smear Durkee’s on my Christmas leftovers. But I’ve heard of Joe Paterno. He was the professor on the sidelines, the Penn State legend dedicated to creating a team of student-athletes.

And now everyone has heard what happened at Penn State.

The behavior of former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky as described in the grand jury report is nothing short of despicable. That Sandusky was allegedly allowed to continue preying on young boys for more than a decade is utterly sickening.

And now the indignant response begins. “I would have said something,” everyone says. “I wouldn’t have gone to my supervisor. I would have gone straight to the police.”

It is easy to say. It is harder to do. And if you don’t believe, consider who didn’t do it: Joe Paterno.

Even as this cloud engulfs him, leading to the apparent end of his coaching career, it is hard to call Paterno a bad man.

But the bystander effect is a terrible thing. Look around you and notice that everyone is doing nothing, and you can conclude that nothing is the thing to do. It happens far more often than we’d like.

While the murder of Jayna Murray took place at the Bethesda (Md.) Lululemon, Apple employees next door reported hearing screams for help and the sounds of thumping and dragging. They did what everyone else was doing. Nothing.

Thousands of us watched, stunned, the video of the Chinese toddler Xiao Yueyue being struck by a white van and then left bleeding in the street, where she was hit by a large truck as 18 people passed by. And they didn’t even have a program to protect. But we wouldn’t have been like that. We would have done something. Well, would we?

And now, at Penn State, Joe Paterno says he did what he was supposed to do.

Some might say that he did what everyone around him was doing: nothing. No, others point out, Paterno reported the situation to his supervisor. Fair. That is what everyone else did. And then?

It is harder to do the right thing than it is to do the same thing as everyone else.

The number of people at Penn State who reported horrible things and then washed their hands of the affair is unsurprisingly substantial. Building Penn State’s program was the work of decades, and to be forced to crack open its brilliant facade and let dark, ugly things crawl out was a prospect from which everyone shrank. With a legacy like that at stake, no one wanted to be the one making the ultimate call. And the ones who did make the call got it wrong. Sandusky kept his access to the football program. They asked him to avoid showering with children. No one went to the police.

Technically speaking, Joe Paterno didn’t act wrongly.

Or, put another way, he didn’t act, wrongly.

That is the whole trouble.

Alexandra Petri is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial page staff.


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