April 19, 2015

Using Mental Models to Understand the Joe Paterno and Penn State Scandal

We often talk about avoiding wipe-out risk on this blog.  In fact, avoiding wipe out risk is one of the main reasons to study mental models because it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a few minutes to destroy it.  I can think of no better real-world case study than the Joe Paterno and Penn State debacle that has dominated the news cycle (and rightly so) for the past few days.  There is a lot to learn and had any one of the people involved looked at the world through the lens of mental models, they wouldn’t be watching their entire career and legacy melt away.  Right or wrong, true or untrue, anyone who thinks that Joe Paterno will ever be remembered by history as anything other than an enabler to an alleged child rapist is kidding themselves.  And that is entirely Joe Paterno’s fault because he could have avoided this situation.

Let’s Begin at the Beginning

The best place to begin is, appropriately, at the beginning.  To truly appreciate the allegations and horror of what might have occurred, you need to read the 23+/- page Grand Jury Report on Jerry Sandusky document published on the website of The New York Times.  The short version?  The grand jury document alleges that successful defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, part of Joe Paterno’s legendary football program at Penn State, systematically abused, raped, molested, and assaulted young boys over several decades.  Jerry Sandusky has been indicated on 40 counts of sexually assaulting eight different children.  Even worse, he found and groomed his victims through a charity he established called The Second Mile, which was ostensibly created to help troubled young boys.  

Make no mistake that if the allegations are true, Jerry Sandusky is a monster responsible for his own actions.  Why all of the hate for Joe Paterno and Penn State since the grand jury report does not indicate their involvement?  Easy.  It seems reasonable to conclude that Sandusky could not have gotten away with his alleged crimes for so long, and would not have had as many victims as he might have had, were he not enabled, in part, by Penn State.  All it takes for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing.  Laws may have even been broken due to a failure to contact authorities once the allegation of abuse had surfaced.  The details are sickening.

A Long Chain of Moral Failings Following an Alleged 2002 Shower Rape of a Child in the Locker Rooms

It is alleged that in 2002, a then 28-year-old graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, witnessed Sandusky anally raping a 10 year old boy in the locker room showers at the university, causing the student to call first his father, and later, Joe Paterno before going to to Joe Paterno’s house.  

Joe Paterno

According to the grand jury report published in The New York Times, it is alleged that Joe Paterno was told by an eyewitness graduate assistant that Jerry Sandusky had anally raped a 10 year old boy in the locker room showers, after which Paterno did not call the police. It is further alleged that Sandusky then went on to continue molesting and raping young children for years, using his charity, The Second Mile, which catered to underprivileged youth, to hunt for new victims. In my mind, that makes Joe Paterno just as culpable. His inaction is disgusting. He should be sitting in prison.

That is the first moral failing.  You have a graduate student – an adult man – who allegedly saw a child being raped and didn’t intervene, didn’t immediately call police, didn’t grab a weapon and stop the attack, and didn’t take photographic evidence to put the perpetrator in jail for life.  Instead, he called his father.  What responsible adult, who is nearly 30 years old, upon witnessing a child being raped, thinks, “I need to call my daddy?”.  McQueary was nearly my age.  

The thing that breaks my heart?  Mike McQueary believed that Sandusky and the 10-year-old or so victim saw him witness the rape as it was happening.  And he didn’t do a damn thing.  That little boy sees a grown man walk into the room as he’s being raped and that man proceeds to do nothing.  Not stop the attack.  Not help him.  How is that child ever going to have any faith in humanity?  As radio host Michael Smerconish said, this is akin to a man walking by an alley as a woman is raped and doing nothing.

If all this turns out to be true, I think that by not reporting what he saw to police, Mike McQueary should be prosecuted as an accessory-after-the-fact.  He is, in my mind, the most culpable after Sandusky.  His actions make me almost as ill because he was supposedly a normal, good person who let it happen.

Now, you have the second moral failing.  McQueary’s father told his son, the graduate student, to come to his house, where they decided to report the incident to Joe Paterno.  Again, they didn’t call the police.  They didn’t go immediately to the local precinct.  

Upon learning about the news, the grand jury report then indicates that Joe Paterno called Tim Curley, Penn State Athletic Director and Paterno’s immediate superior.  

That is the third moral failing.  Instead of immediately contacting authorities and getting law enforcement involved, Joe Paterno is said to have called his boss and treated what was a serious criminal allegation as an internal personnel matter.  Why would someone do that?  The only reason that occurs to me is they are worried about their job, the public relations implications of disclosure, and the effect on the program in which they work.  Joe Paterno acted like a mid-level manager, not a leader.  You don’t check with your boss to see how to handle something like this.  You shouldn’t even have to check with yourself about how to handle the situation!  There is no ethical dilemma here.  There is no hard decision.  You call the police.

Next, the grand jury report states that “the graduate assistant was called to a meeting with Penn State Athletic Director Curley and Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz” and that the graduate assistant was told “they would look into it”.  Later, he was “told that Sandusky’s keys to the locker room were taken away”.

Here you have the fourth and fifth moral failings.  Two men, high up in the Penn State hierarchy, not only kept the matter mostly internal by not calling police, they continued to allow Sandusky remain emeritus and have access to facilities.  What makes it worse?  According to the same grand jury document, these men are said to have known about an earlier 1998 investigation into inappropriate conduct with a child by Jerry Sandusky and that the most recent allegations were nearly identical, involving Sandusky in the showers with a young, underaged boy.

It gets even more horrific.  The document states:

“Although Shultz oversaw the University Police as part of his position, he never reported the 2002 incident to the University Police or other policy agency, never sought or reviewed a police report on the 1998 incident and never attempted to learn the identity of the child in the shower in 2002.  No one from the University did so.  Shultz did not ask the graduate assistant for specifics.  No one ever did.”

That, the grand jury report states, is against the law because when an employee reports allegations of abuse, the person in charge of a school or institution is responsible for and has the legal obligation of contacting the Department of Public Welfare within 48 hours.

In short, one New Jersey writer put it best:

No one alerted the police.

No one tried to restrain Sandusky in the shower.

Not one person thought it important to find out the child’s identity or if the child was alright.

By not alerting the authorities, all of these parties were complicit in allowing Sandusky to prey on young boys for another seven years. Responsible adults valued the protection of their football program over the protection of an innocent child. Any one of them had a chance to be a hero. Instead, they chose to allow the incident to be swept under the carpet.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  You need to read the grand jury report to make up your own mind.  Now, the news is reporting that a District Attorney who was investing Jerry Sandusky at the time went missing and has just been declared legally dead.

Joe Paterno Is Fired and Disgraced

Last night, Penn State’s Board of Regents finally started acting like executives and summarily fired Joe Paterno with a phone call.  Now, students are protesting and unrest is hitting the university’s campus.  Those students are morally bankrupt.  Either they have no conscious, sense of responsibility, understanding of ethics, or ability to think about cause and effect.  Those students are the very embodiment of much of what ailes the body politic in the United States; when people think only about what benefit they can get from a system without considering the cost.  They have no problem with a man who, by nearly all accounts, didn’t do a damn thing to make sure Jerry Sandusky went to prison as he continued to (allegedly) rape boys.  

I think the outcome is just.  I think it is right.  I think it is good.  If the grand jury allegations are true, Joe Paterno failed to alert police about a child rapist.  In my mind, that makes him morally just as culpable as Jerry Sandusky.  Joe Paterno should lose his career, he should lose his reputation, he should lose his friends, and he should lose any sense of respect others had for him.  He demonstrated a total lack of leadership and a complete deficiency of character.  He behaved in a matter that can only be described as pathetic, weak, and if some people get their way and convince local authorities to file charges, criminal.  (Note, the grand jury report does not indicate any wrongdoing on the part of Joe Paterno.)

The quickest way to know someone is of a weak mind is for them to blame Jerry Sandusky for Joe Paterno’s current woes.  “If it hadn’t been for Sandusky …” or “20/20 is hindsight.”  Those are poor excuses; meaningless platitudes by folks who want to make themselves feel better.  Confronted with an unquestionably simple ethical dilemma, it appears as if Joe Paterno failed the basic test of adulthood, responsibility, and goodness.  Upon hearing the allegations about Sandusky’s attack in the shower, the sentence shouldn’t have even been concluded before his hand was pressing the “dial” button to 911.  The only person who is worse is Mike McQueary.

Figuring Out the Reasons Penn State’s Staff Acted Like They Did: A Look at Mental Models

Now, we need to look at the mental models to try and understand how so many people along the chain of command could have had the same moral failings and acted in the same disgraceful way.  We need to use these mental models to understand the world.

Social Proof: When confronted with allegations of enormous evil perpetrated against innocent children, the people involved looked to others to determine how to appropriately respond.  None, it would seem, thought for themselves.  None, it would seem, acted like a rational, independent thinkers.

Social Loafing: As more and more people were made aware of the accusations against Sandusky, individual responsibility for stopping future attacks and bringing in law enforcement apparently evaporated.

Super Power of Incentive: One likely reason that so many people failed to do the right thing was the worry about how disclosure would harm their jobs, the football program they loved, and the reputation of the school.  

Denial: When life is good and things are going well, problems are often ignored.  There is some gender difference here; women are more likely to get cancer checkups if finding a lump, explaining, in part, a reason they live longer on average, whereas men go into denial and convince themselves everything is fine.  The power of denial can be strengthened by social proof.  It would appear in this case, that is what happened.

Mere Association: Very few people like the idea of being associated with, or having an institution they love associated with, an alleged pedophile.

Horns and Halo Effect: The fact that Jerry Sandusky had worked with Joe Paterno for so long, and had such a successful career in the college football world, meant that the “halo” of his job performance overshadowed the evidence of his alleged misdeeds.  

Hyperbolic Discounting: The mental model of hyperbolic discounting is that people have a much stronger preference from more immediate payoffs than future payoffs.  By “dealing with” the allegations and then moving on, rather than solving them, the Penn State employees felt as if the issue had been resolved, not realizing that the long-term damage of non-disclosure was catastrophic to the people involved, the university, the football program, and the legacy of Joe Paterno.

Framing Effect: The shower rape incident was said to have been witnessed by a graduate assistant who then reported it to Joe Paterno.  Had, instead, a powerful executive seen the attack, stormed in Paterno’s office, demanded that the police be called, and framed the situation with the urgency it deserved, none of this would have happened.  How the events were framed influenced subsequent cognition because the men involved apparently weren’t using mental model checklists. 

How is it possible people aren’t outraged by Joe Paterno’s inaction, such as the students protesting in the streets last night over his firing?  It’s a mental model called omission bias that causes many individuals to instinctively view harmful actions as more evil than harmful inactions, even though the outcome can be the same.  Whereas a mental model approach focuses on outcome and process (e.g., “If you could have lessened the probability of or stopped child rape from happening and didn’t, you are just as culpable.”), those suffering from omission bias are likely to say, “He didn’t do anything wrong.  It was all Jerry Sandusky’s fault if the allegations are true.”

Some Final Thoughts on Joe Paterno’s Legacy

Did Joe Paterno do a lot right in his career?  Yes.  Nothing takes away from his accomplishments.  But in a situation of grave importance, when character, strength, and fortitude were revealed, it is my opinion, based upon the grand jury report, that he passed the buck, didn’t take responsibility, and failed to put a man behind bars who, if reports are to be believed, has many more subsequent victims.

That, in my mind, would make him just as guilty as Jerry Sandusky.  I’m glad he was fired.  I think it would be a perfectly just outcome if Joe Paterno spent the next 5 to 10 years in jail as an accomplice-after-the-fact.  Based upon the grand jury report, that is precisely what his actions look like to me.  In addition, he’s opened himself up to liability and litigation claims by subsequent victims, who now have what would appear to be strong cases that he could have prevented their suffering.  That might very well lead to financial bankruptcy.  It should.  The same thing should happen to Mike McQueary.  Any man that lacks the integrity to come forward after witnessing such a crime isn’t someone I’d trust.  Normally, I try to be charitable.  But loathing is the only word I can describe that adequately sums up what I’m feeling towards everyone involving in this debacle.

Given his age, this is the thing that will consume the final days of Joe Paterno’s life.  It will be mentioned in his biography.  It will be detailed as an asterisk on every mention of his career.  And the whole damn thing was avoidable had he been a man, picked up the phone, and called police.  It is such a no-brainer that I’m not sure why it is happening.  It reminds me of the David Sokel mess at Berkshire Hathaway; so unnecessary.

  • Wilken

    This story is obviously sad on many fronts and yes, a lesson or two can be learned here.  One thought I’d like to make is the story of Michael Jackson.  Good music for many years, then years of his ‘closeness,’ etc. with children.  And looking back; good lord, what type of person had he become to invite neighborhood kids over and sleep in his bed.  And in related news, I heard the bed he died on was purchased?!?  Regardless, after being gone his legacy of good (music) is what he is remembered as (from anything I hear in the news) rather than his years of creepiness.  50 years from now, I’ll put money on memorabilia praising Paterno for his good works.

    • Joshua Kennon

      You might be right.  I could be proven wrong.  But my iTunes library still has quite a few Michael Jackson songs in it and the very first thing I associate with him when his music starts playing are the allegations against him.  I love “Stranger in Moscow” but it’s always on my mind, at least in the back.  And it’s been – what – one or two decades since the Jackson mess?  

      • Wilken

        Same here, though don’t think I’ve heard “Stranger in Moscow,” I’ll have to look it up. And how long has GE manufactured percolators?

  • Spingus

    This reminds me of Roman Polansky’s case.  A man living in exile, a holocaust survivor, a man who lost his wife to one of the most infamous group murder’s in American history and maker of highly regarded films.  He’s also a man who dodged sentencing for raping a 13 year old girl. 

    When his extradition woes were in the media last year there was a buzz on various social media in support of him.  It seems people wanted to let bygones be bygones –celebrities like Quentin Tarantino thought we should let the halo of his artistic genious be supported by his rapist horns. 

    I wonder if anyone who signed the online petition to clear his name have young daughters.  I wonder if they would mind their daughters getting raped for the price of an out of court settlement years later.

  • James

    I think I first learned about this quote in a business ethics course in college and have tried to apply it to my personal life ever since:

    The Front-Page-of-the-Newspaper Test

    One simple ethical model requires only that a decision maker envision how a reporter would describe a decision on the front page of a local or national newspaper. When Salomon Brothers illegally cornered the U.S. government’s bond market, the BusinessWeek headline read, “How Bad Will it Get?” Nearly two years later, a follow-up story on Salomon’s crisis strategy was headlined “The Bomb Shelter that Salomon Built.” During the aftermath of the bond market scandal, the interim chairman of Salomon, Warren Buffett, told employees, “Contemplating any business act, an employee should ask himself would he be willing to see it immediately described by an informed or critical reporter on the front page of his local paper, there to be read by his spouse, children, and friends. At Salomon we simply want no part of any activities that pass legal tests, but we, as citizens, would find offensive.”

    from Business: Its Legal, Ethical, and Global Environment  By Marianne Jennings

    That last sentence is the money shot.

  • Fygar778xlax


  • Joshua Kennon

    Thank you for the clarification (and welcome as a commentator!).  Rationally, you’re right in that I should withhold judgment.  As a man?  I don’t remember being as angry about anything in a very long time as I was reading the grand jury indictment.  If even 10% of it turns out to be true, I’d want them all in prison.  It isn’t Sandusky’s alleged crimes that shock me so much – bad men are always going to do bad things as long as the world exists – but the idea that for more than a decade thereafter supposedly good men did nothing.  That’s the part that infuriates me.  The feelings were so strong they (even now) overwhelm my rationality and I’m aware of that.

    I don’t think the alumni should or will be harmed by the scandal.  I imagine the entire thing is horribly sad for someone closely connected with the institution and can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now.  I’m not sure what my reaction would if it were my alma matter.

    The upside: The old wisdom “this too shall pass” is true in this situation.  Penn State as an institution will be fine if – this is a big if – they handle it correctly.  It shouldn’t “lawyer up”, but instead go with a brutal honesty technique, candidly admit and release everything it finds, hide nothing, and make a cash settlement offer to any victims in exchange for closing liability.  The institution itself can turn this into a positive if it is handled well.

  • davido-sj17

    Believing that Joe Paterno and the others at Penn State should be in prison is not self-righteous.  I agree with Mr. Kennon on this.  The word self righteous means actions “derived from a sense that one’s beliefs, actions, or affiliations are of greater virtue than those of the average person” but huge majorities of average people, nearly every talk show host, most radio hosts, and other media personalities are screaming for the same thing.  If most of society is saying something it can’t be self righteous by its very definition.  It doesn’t make them correct all the time but that is a different issue.New evidence was released today showing Paterno transferred his house to his wife for $1 a few months ago.  Tax attorneys are on the news saying there is no legitimate estate strategy for what he did other than to try to protect from civil and legal liabilities.  I am curious if the courts will classify it as a fraudulent transfer since it was so recent.  It looks like he knew this was coming and tried to cover his ass.If believing doing nothing or just telling your boss about a guy who by all accounts except his own is raping kids and who can’t even bring himself to denounce sexual attraction to young boys in a phone in television interview then most of us are self righteous.You do make good points except for that.

  • FratMan

    The facts are out. I’m ready to reach my opinion now. Paterno was guilty as hell, and failed the biggest test of his life.

  • Michael Starke

    I agree with the stance you take in this post. The adults involved in this scandal (bottom to top) contributed to an ongoing criminal conspiracy to abuse children, either by their direct action, their silence, or their efforts to cover up and hide the truth of what was occurring. I have the benefit of hindsight by commenting on a post that’s nearly 15 months old, knowing that Jerry Sandusky is in prison and Joe Paterno has passed (if you are a person of faith you might argue that he is subject to a different kind of judgement now).

    What I find puzzling is the manner in which the football program (independent of its leadership) at Penn State was punished. I don’t see how the players (many of whom were not even members of the team when the incidents of sexual abuse were committed) have culpability in this conspiracy. The loss of scholarships (part of the sanctions handed down by the NCAA) extend so far into the future (10/year in 2011 & 2012, and 20/year in 2013-2016) that there are football players still in high school with no connection to the child abuse scandal that are punished for no reason other than their desire to attend (and play football for) Penn State.

    I understand that the conspirators and the institution needed to be punished. I can even acknowledge that the university needed to be fined, and lose some of the (rather large) revenue stream it derives from its football program. I just wonder if the sanctions didn’t go too far. Any thoughts?

  • Maria

    Thank you so much Mr. Kennon for writing this blog post. This is very well researched. I see how the mental models are influencing people. It helps me understand how so many people could stand by and do nothing. Reading your blog has taught me so many things. I will apply that knowledge in my decision making. Your blog is fabulous. You have helped so many people.