Over the weekend, a jury found former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky guilty of dozens of counts of child sex abuse. Let’s hope the verdict gives Mr. Sandusky’s victims some peace of mind. Although for one of them, I suspect it won’t. Mike McQueary, a former Penn State graduate student and assistant coach, is – in a way – a victim, too.
He’s one of the few people in this horrific drama who actually took some action. He interrupted what appeared to be a rape, and he reported it. But he’s been blamed for not doing enough. He’s been found guilty by many of us for not physically taking the bad guy out. For not doing what Rambo or Superman would have done. For not being the hero every man believes he would have been if faced with the same situation.
One of the difficulties of being an American male is that you grow up with two competing stories of manhood. The first is the Lone Ranger story. This is the story of the hero who works outside the system. The detective who breaks all the rules. The guy who doesn’t believe in the chain of command. This is the story of every Superhero: the protagonist who inhabits every male’s alter ego.
The other story isn’t as thrilling or as dramatic. But it’s the story told by every institution a boy comes in contact with. Once he closes the comic book, this is the story told by his coach, his Boy Scout leader, all his teachers, even his parents. It’s the story of the Good Soldier, the Team Player. The good guy who works within the system. Who takes one for the team. Who respects authority. It’s the story of loyalty and codes of honor. It’s the narrative of fraternities and Marines.
And it trumps the Lone Ranger story. Mike McQueary is the prototypical Good Soldier. He would have gladly marched off a cliff for Joe Paterno. He is the ultimate Team Player. He’s a model citizen who believes in authority.
So Mr. McQueary did what he was conditioned to do. He told the ultimate authority: JoePa. You and I might wonder why he didn’t tell the police. In his world, the police were mere mortals compared to Coach. I’m not suggesting McQueary shouldn’t have called the police. I’m just saying that when people wonder why he didn’t alert the authorities, they’re missing the point: He did.
And the Coach, another lifelong believer in the code of the Good Soldier, let McQueary down. He, too, stayed inside the system. He may have wanted to protect the reputation of Penn State. That’s another attribute of the Good Solider: They believe in abstractions like team and “Penn State Football.” They often choose abstractions over people.
I don’t mean to suggest that these two narratives are mutually exclusive. In certain circumstances the Good Soldier acts like a Superhero. Sometimes the team player ignores the coach’s orders and saves the day. But that’s the exception, not the rule. And it’s too easy to blame McQueary for not being the exception that day.
There is a terrible dark side to the respect for authority that we demand from our children. When you spend time with a four-year old who hasn’t started school yet, you notice how challenging he is: He questions everything. He asks you pointed, impolite questions. He doesn’t agree with everything you say. Now talk to his eight-year-old brother or sister. The independence is gone, replaced by a polite respect for authority. It’s the beginning of a lifetime of conditioning.
And that conditioning is accelerated and deepened when children play organized sports. Unfortunately, that’s the only kind of sports left for children in America to play. In the past, kids grew up playing pick-up games. They might not meet a coach until they were 12. Not today.
Kids are often introduced to coaches and sports at the same time. Four year olds are on t-ball teams and play in soccer leagues. Before they develop any love of competition or a passion for the game, they are faced with the notion that sports is an organization ruled by an authority. The code of honor that lead McQueary to believe he told the only authority that mattered starts early and runs deep.
I’m not suggesting we raise anarchists. I get the fact that society needs Good Soldiers and Team Players. Those are the qualities that make good neighbors and good citizens. But we need whistleblowers, too. We need a lot more Lone Rangers.
We need to think twice when we tell children to stop asking so many questions. We need to stop working so hard to convince our children that their teachers, clergy, and coaches always know best. Because far too often they don’t.
We need to find ways to teach Good Soldiers and Team Players to question authority while still respecting it. In fact, we need to go one step further and teach them that questioning authority is the best way to show respect for it. And any authority that challenges that notion isn’t worthy of respect.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.