It is easier to be polite than kind. It is easier to do the correct thing than the right thing. It is easier to do what is good for the program than what is good.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the Freeh report on what happened at Penn State.
The Freeh report is difficult to read. You look for heroes and you find only people, people who kept choosing over and over to do the wrong thing.
Throughout, everyone observes the correct forms. Sandusky groped boys in the shower? No need for a police report without direct evidence of a crime. No need to inform the board of trustees. Cling to the letter of the law.
Paterno waits to tell university officials of Mike McQueary’s shocking report of a sexual assault in the showers because he did not “want to interfere with their weekends.” The officials worry about taking a “humane” approach to confronting Sandusky. “Humane”!
They speak of the assault in polite, vague language. “Fondling, whatever you might call it,” Paterno said. “I didn’t push Mike to describe exactly what it was because he was very upset.” Don’t want to ruin your weekend! Don’t want to be inhumane to Jerry! Wouldn’t want to upset Mike any further!
It would be so much easier if people were obviously bad. If only there were “stranger danger.” If only the abusers of children were nameless, faceless menaces who rolled along in dark vans with candy. Instead it is Jerry with the office down the hall. The nameless, faceless figure isn’t the predator but the victim.
The lack of compassion for the victims was “striking,” as the report said. But startling? No. It is hard to have compassion for someone whose name you do not know and whose face you have not seen. Liability aside, no wonder they didn’t want to learn it. To put a face and a name to the incident would require confronting the fact that a person was harmed — not Victim 6, but a person as real as Mike or Jerry or Joe.
The question with which I turned to the Freeh report was: How do we prevent this from happening again? Its answer was painfully simple: You can’t. Until people discover that what really damages your institution is sacrificing your decency to its good name, such horrors will keep happening.
The right thing to do was the hard thing, the impolite thing, the thing that was bad for the program, the thing that was bad for Jerry down the hall and seemed likely to do away with Joe’s hopes for a statue.
All HR codes and company policies are the accumulated result of series of incidents no one expected to happen. “Do not throw copy supplies from the ninth-floor window, shouting in tongues,” the new policy reads. “Do not create a black-market business selling coffee filters from the third-floor machine. Do not tweet ill-advised personal comments about the HR director.” Each new incident brings another line. But it is not the foreseeable problems that you have to worry about. It is not the things that policy covers, the small verboten things with easy solutions that you have to fear.
People like Sandusky may well be monsters. He certainly knew what he was. But more frightening are the people who weren’t monsters and allowed this monstrous thing to keep on happening.
There are company policies and school policies for everything under the sun. There are codes of conduct and forms of politeness and guidelines for behavior. But they are no substitute for doing the right thing.
The real, terrible question of history is not how bad things happen to good people but how good people allow bad things to happen.
How can a whole group of people, doing what they say they thought was the correct thing at the time, produce something so horrible? For the program? To avoid bad publicity? For football? For Joe and Jerry?
The question is not, why didn’t anyone say anything?
People said things. They said the correct things to the correct people.
But the right thing proved more elusive.
What depresses me most is the last section of the report, offering a path forward. There are pages and pages of new duties, new checklists, new measures for compliance with the law, new processes for reporting. A better process is certainly not a bad idea. But the central problem here was that people did only what they thought the process required — if that.
There is only one sentence that might make a difference. It’s the one about rethinking the culture. But then what? You can’t legislate virtue. People tend to be worse in bulk. Individual failures of conscience multiply in the name of something comfortingly large like the Program.
The bitter irony of all this is that every action taken to protect the school, to protect the Program, to protect the legacy has had the opposite effect. You won’t be able to hear the name Joe Paterno without the name Jerry Sandusky following a heartbeat later. If someone had done the right thing, rather than just the correct thing, that might not be the case.