Comment of the Day: “Mike McQueary and Me”

Some recent Ethics Alarms commenters

Joseph Edward bought me some time with this superb Comment of the Day, because I am writing a post on the same topic. Mike McQueary’s conduct in the locker room, when he allegedly witnesses Jerry Sandusky raping a boy,  has generated some of the most self-righteous and, I may say, annoying comments I’ve encountered on Ethics Alarms, characterizing my commentary (in “Mike McQueary and Me”) on why McQueary might have acted as he did with excusing his conduct. Most of these, I’m relatively certain, are motivated by those who want to shift responsibility for the Penn State debacle away from Joe Paterno.

One particularly persistent and vociferous commenter has decreed that it was an “absolute moral obligation” for McQueary to physically intervene to stop the assault he witnessed. Joseph touches on that dubious contention; I’ll have more to say about it soon. Meanwhile, here is his Comment of the Day, on “Mike McQueary and Me”:

“Mike McQueary is neither a Good nor Bad Samaritan, but one who delayed his response. Lawyers have recognized for years nuances in how people respond when witnessing crimes against others, and delayed or passive responding is more common than heroic intervention. Intervening factors, such as shock, panic, and misplaced loyalty, among other things, do effect people’s decision-making abilities in the moment.

“McQueary seems to have made a measured decision, after a day’s reflection and consultation with others, (at least his father, and, though we do not know for certain, possibly an attorney) and at that point reported the matter in the way state law and university policy prescribed. That he had moral obligations to do more presumes that he would immediately and without hesitation have either …

1. …physically intervened to stop the assault (no law in this country creates such a clearly defined duty), or

2. …would have reported his witness of events to the police. (Which police department by the way? The University police, who had already shut down the 1998 investigation of Sandusky? Who had investigational jurisdiction over a crime on campus property? Did McQueary? Was he thinking about potential relationships Sandusky, Paterno, and others may have had, real or perceived, with law enforcement officials? Was he thinking about the unsolved disappearance 6 years prior of the first DA who tried to bring a criminal abuse claim against Sandusky? We don’t know, and really, none of us should presume we do.)

“What is so interesting about the responses in the media and blogosphere, is that all of us like think we would act heroically. Perhaps everyone would do so, without hesitation. What a wonderful world that would be. But I wonder, though, how many of us actually would. It is easy to think so strongly of oneself from the comfort of one’s couch, with the luxury of reflecting without experiencing the actual moment of crisis. In reality, the decision making process in our brains and spirits, if you believe in that aspect of personality, is much messier.

“Instances of bystanders allowing murders and gang rapes are well documented in American society in recent decades. The hesitation to act has precedent in society, and is well represented in the sometimes contradictory jumble of statutory and case law promoting duty to report/rescue obligations. So, is it possible that there are two levels of response occurring here-the response of Mr McQueary and his superiors at Penn State, (in which everyone seems agrees the ball was dropped-when, by whom, and the degree of moral and legal culpability, remains to be seen), and the response of the crowd, represented by the many media and blog commentaries, as well as the water-cooler variety comments at workplaces and homes. I am interested in why such a critical mass of people believe they would act heroically in a given circumstance, when there is precious little evidence to support this idea save for how mightily one thinks of oneself. Or, is it that the effect of the crowd is such that we simply excuse ourselves in the moment, and by berating the apparent weakness in another, feel that much more secure in our own rather fantastical notions that we would fulfill the ideal norm without fail.

“Group think works in many ways-it was apparently present in the failure to act on the part of officials at Penn St, and it seems to me quite loudly present in what I find to be painful and disingenuous self-assertions of the “crowd” in the media, and on the blogs.”

14 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Mike McQueary and Me”

  1. It’s pretty much considerations like these that derailed my own intended post on McQueary. The more I learned about what happened, the murkier it got.

    People often make incredibly poor decisions under pressure for reasons that can be explained as normal human psychology. Among other things, a person in the chemical grip of the fight-or-flight reflex loses their ability to think things over. To a first approximation, this means that their response is limited only to doing familiar things. Even more than usual, they are unlikely to be able to improvise a response to a novel situation — such as witnessing a rape in progress.

    This realization is part of the reason for the U.S. military’s obsession with training the way they fight. It ensures that soldiers are familiar with the tasks of warfighting, so that when the adrenaline kicks in, they know how to fight. Put another way, in the midst of an urgent crisis, people don’t rise to the occasion, they default to the level of their experience or training.

    Assuming McQueary had never seen or experienced such violence before, it’s unsurprising that he didn’t handle it well. I don’t know a lot of the details, but it seems possible that these psychological factors could explain much or all of his conduct.

    • Excellent and helpful. The amazing number of people pronouncing McQueary a monster based on that initial encounter shows how few of us have had to face such a situation…and that is, ironically, why so few of us would handle it perfectly or well. People would handle it better, when that moment comes, by reflecting now on how hard the task of doing the right thing is.

      • The amazing number of people pronouncing McQueary a monster based on that initial encounter shows how few of us have had to face such a situation…and that is, ironically, why so few of us would handle it perfectly or well.

        I do not fault McQueary for his instantaneous reaction. He never saw a boy raped before. Coupled with him seeing Jerry Sandusky as the perpetrator, his instant reaction would understandably be shock.

        It is blameworthy for him not to file an official police report.

        Note: This article mentions that McQueary met with Gary Schultz, whose position in the university gave him oversight over the university police, which means he did go to the police; he just did not file an official report on the matter.

        • Michael, please drop this argument…it makes no sense. If telling Schultz was the equivalent of telling the police, then why is Schultz indicted for not telling the police? He may supervise the campus police, but that doesn’t make him the police. The City Council in Washington DC can fire the Commissioner, but you don’t get credit for contacting the police by just telling the Chairman of the City Council. McQueary did not contact the police under any realistic interpretation of those words.

  2. As someone who witnessed a mother hitting her teenaged daughter in a bank parking lot, I understand the fear of getting involved. For a split second I hesitated but I got out of my car, intervened, and told the woman to stop hitting her daughter. She stopped and verbally vented her frustration on me. I asked the girl if she needed to be taken somewhere safe (she was probably 16 – 18 years old) or if she felt safe going home with the mother. She said she was okay. I asked a second time and told her to call police or tell someone at school if this continued. I took down the license plate number and reported what I had seen to local police. They said that it did not rise to the level of a criminal act since it is covered under parental rights to use corporal punishment.
    Anyway, I was distraught and shocked and scared by what I was witnessing but I still knew on a very basic human level that I could not ignore this and just drive away. Mike McQueary failed to intervene because he was scared. But sometimes in life, we never know when, we are called to do the right thing and intervene even if we are scared.

  3. Penn State’s Mike McQueary placed on administrative leave
    (AP) Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, a key witness in the child sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the school, has been placed on administrative leave.
    School president Rod Erickson announced the move Friday, a day after the school said McQueary would not be present when the Nittany Lions play Nebraska on Saturday because he had received threats.

  4. Appears McQueary will have plenty of time to reflect on his decisions.
    Because of the earlier allegations Paterno forced Sandusky into retirement. Nothing more.

  5. According to this site , Gary Schultz had oversight over the university police department, and was informed of the accusations by the athletic director Curley. This means that the university police knew of the accusations by McQueary.

  6. Re. your statement, “Was he thinking about the unsolved disappearance 6 years prior of the first DA who tried to bring a criminal abuse claim against Sandusky?” – The DA you mention decided NOT to charge Sandusky after the investigation into the shower incident in that event, and that was in 1998. His disappearance was seven years later, in 2005. See

    People trying to make a connection between Gricar’s disappearance and PSU are grasping for air. It’s far more likely that it was connected to drug trafficking, and that was the theory at the time of the disappearance.
    Since you’re writing in an ethical forum, please don’t bring manufactured associations into the mix. Thanks.

    • 1) First of all, I made the post the Comment of the Day, and commenters are allowed to make whatever connections and pose whatever theories they choose, as long as they do it relatively civilly. Joseph shouldn’t be held to some higher standard because of the extra exposure I gave his comment without his consent or knowledge. Comments of the Day sometimes are chosen specifically because they raise surprising or unexpected thoughts that I might not agree with. Your command at the end is unfair.
      2) I didn’t take the comment to be any kind of a provocative suggestion anyway. Nobody knows what happened to the DA…you’re suggestion may be more popular or likely, but it is no more manufactured than what Joseph wrote. What McQueary may have been thinking isn’t any kind of assertion of fact at all. The point is, who knows what fears, rational and irrational, might have motivated him? Ig Joseph wrote, “Was he thinking that other assistants who stumbled on this dark secret were locked away in some Penn Sate dungeon, would you take that as the author’s assertion that such a dungeon exists?

      • Respectfully, Jack, you missed my point. Please reread what I wrote in response to Joseph’s statement “Was he thinking about the unsolved disappearance 6 years prior of the first DA WHO TRIED TO BRING A CRIMINAL ABUSE CLAIM AGAINST SANDUSKY?” (capitals at the end added for emphasis). I wrote, “The DA you mention decided NOT to charge Sandusky after the investigation into the shower incident in that event, and that was in 1998. His disappearance was seven years later, in 2005.”

        In other words, the DA DID NOT “try to bring a criminal abuse claim against Sandusky” — he decided not to prosecute on the basis that there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. Therefore Joseph’s assertion that the DA “tried to” prosecute was inaccurate. I was merely stating a fact, although apparently poorly. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

  7. I found (from an INCREDIBLY unlikely source) a well composed and well researched blog post that essentially outlines the link between homophobic organizations in which adults have “ultimate authority” over children and pedophilia. I think if more people understood the reality that pedophilia is incur able, dangerous, and facilitated by these organizations, more of them would come under scrutiny. Click here to read it for yourself .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.