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. 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.
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 for 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.