Monday, November 14, 2011

Say it ain’t so, Joe!

According to baseball folklore, in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series, a young fan supposedly said to Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the most famous players of that era, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Unfortunately the boy’s hero had to admit it was true that he and several other teammates conspired to throw the World Series that year.

That scandal is among the biggest in American sports history but ironically it will be eclipsed by an even bigger scandal in recent days, one that has people thinking, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” This time they’re referring to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and his staff’s failure to do more in the wake of a former assistant, Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of young boys at the Penn State athletic facilities. The story is horrible in so many respects and is far too detailed for me to go into in this post. To find out details in the Grand Jury investigation visit

Sports radio and major news organizations are all asking how anyone could have known about the abuse and not done more. Many commentators are telling listeners and viewers what those people should have done and what they (the commentators) would have done if they had been at Penn State. Indeed, I think almost anyone who hears the sordid details thinks they would have tried to stop what they witnessed or would have immediately gone to the police. What I’m about to say would ruffle those commentator's feathers and might upset you too.

I doubt most of those commentators, news anchors or the average person would have acted much differently than Joe Paterno or Scott McQueary.

I know that statement sounds harsh and doesn’t sit well with many people but I’ll remind you as a society we have short memories. People asked the same things about the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews by Germans during World War II – how could any human being have seen what was going on and not done something to stop it? How could anyone have actually participated in those atrocities? In more recent years the world was aware of genocide in Rwanda and did little to stop it and there was not a huge outcry from people who saw it on the news either. Five decades ago Stanley Milgram wondered the same thing about people and set out find an answer.

If the name Stanley Milgram is familiar it’s because he was the social psychologist from Yale who conducted a series of experiments in the early 1960s to see how people responded to authority. As you can imagine, most people predicted the average American would not do much harm to another person but, during a "learning experiment" Milgram found that 65% of his subjects administered a series of 30 progressively stronger shocks to a partner with the final shock being 450 volts. That's enough voltage to kill a person! There was no coercion involved, no personal history to consider, nor was anyone’s career on the line in the experiment. All it took was a man in a white lab coat – a perceived authority – insisting that participants continue on with the experiment despite their protests and near emotional breakdowns at times. For details on the Milgram experiment, click here.

In a much milder form, the Milgram experiment and many other interesting scenarios such as bullying have been replicated in recent years on the NBC television show What Would You Do? I encourage you to take a look because it’s fascinating to see how normal people respond in ways few of us would predict.

Most people believe themselves to be better looking than the average person, and smarter, kinder and, I bet, more heroic. You probably believe you are and I’ll be honest, I believe I’m all those things too. Because of our high self-esteem we like to believe we would have immediately done the right thing if we’d been at Penn State. Indeed, many of the people at Penn State thought they were doing the right thing because they followed school protocol. In reality I bet most people would not have acted any differently than the Penn State folks and would have reported the incident to their boss and relieve themselves of the burden of getting involved.

If you think differently here’s one more case to consider, Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese. This is the woman who was stabbed to death in New York City in 1964 in full view or within earshot of many people who did nothing to help her. The accounts vary as to how many people and the actual circumstances but it’s become commonly documented that all too often people don’t help one another when they see someone in need and the more people there are around, the less any one person feels the need to help. This is sometimes called the "bystander effect" or "diffusion of responsibility."

I will also point out that sometimes the people who protest the loudest are the people who might be least likely to do the right thing. Have we forgotten about the Catholic Church sex scandals and the numerous preachers who’ve railed against homosexuality, infidelity and so many other sins only to be caught in the very things they preached fire and brimstone about? Do the names Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Baker and Ted Haggard ring a bell?

Sometimes, it’s the people we least expect who take the heroic actions, and all too often, those we do expect to step up don’t. This post in no way exonerates Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary or anyone else at Penn State nor does it condemn them. This post is simply to help us understand why they might have made the choices they did. The same psychology at work in them works in everyone one of us too so I would caution anyone to emphatically state what they would have done had they been there because truth is, we never know until we find ourselves in similar situations. Sometimes we surprise ourselves in good ways and other times we’re ashamed. We would all do well to remember the famous church saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Brian, CMCT 
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.


  1. You are wise beyond your years, Brian. Oh yeah, LOTS of people are sure that THEY would have done "this" or "that" or that [insert name of current target of public wrath] should have done “thus and so”, but until they are faced with the real situation and the whole context they don't really know. Often the full story doesn't come out for years, if at all. There are folks in our society required by circumstances to make judgments about people (like juries in a court of law); everyone else is well advised (regardless of their innermost thoughts) to withhold--or at least moderate--public statements of their (possibly) ill-informed opinions. “Keep your words sweet – you may have to eat them.”

  2. George,
    I appreciate the compliment and your comments. You're right about context mattering so much. For example; I can't imagine a woman living with someone who physically abuses them but if that's what they saw growing up and then they marry an abuser it's normal to them. Throw on top of it fear for their life then I'm sure the choice that seems so easy to the rest of us - just leave - is incredible difficult for the victim to make.

  3. I hope that by bringing this information to light we don't accidentally end up creating a sense of social proof that this behavior is normal or create the idea that "everyone else is doing it" when it comes to the by-stander effect.

    I think it is good that our moral conscience realizes this behavior is wrong no matter how instinctual it may be to turn a blind eye.

    It is time to stop the "click, whirr" when it comes to our children.

  4. When I worked in the oil industry I reported a rig hand smelling like pot at work. My supervisor fired him on the spot. The next morning he came by with a shot gun and started shooting. Luckily, no one was hurt, but fear of reprisal always plays a part.

  5. Great point Eily. We certainly don't want to explain all of this away or normalize it. However, if posting this causes people to pause and consider then just maybe they'll make better choices if ever faces with a situation that mirrors the power structure and everything else at Penn State.