The Horror Show at Penn State

By David Brooks and Gail Collins (New York Times)
November 9, 2011

In The Conversation, David Brooks and Gail Collins talk between columns every Wednesday.

Gail Collins: David, I can't get over the horror show at Penn State. I wish I knew more about football so I could make some smart comments about the meaning of Joe Paterno. But all I can think about is: If you're the coach and you hear that a man is hurting a kid in the shower, this was not the moment to send a report up the chain of command.

David Brooks: Well, this is the one story more revolting than the Herman Cain groping and the Michael Jackson doctor. I've been trying to wrap my head around this one too. I presume, based on a lifetime of watching Penn State football, that Paterno is basically a decent man. I presume the administrators are in some way decent, because most people are.

But what could have made them so numb and callous? How could they have not been seized by revulsion after hearing the reports of what was happening? How could they have not felt a desire to expunge this from their athletic system?

It's the failure to follow normal intuitions that is striking. Perhaps they didn't want to believe this of one of their own. Perhaps they'd been trained to think legally rather than morally and passionately?

Maybe they just feared the taint that would cling to their beloved program if they reported the allegations. Now, as always, things have become much worse. Pain now is better than pain deferred.

Gail: Someone just showed me a list of the prior offenses that make you ineligible to work in a day care center. They include stealing free cable service and "making or using slugs." The center my friend worked at had been allowed to hire a 70-year-old cook who had been arrested once as a teenager for shoplifting only after the administrators submitted a rehabilitation plan. But all the rules in the world won't make any difference if people don't step up and speak out when a child is being abused.

David: There are a few downsides to our zero tolerance culture. It takes matters out of the hands of personal discretion and it shifts authority to rules and statutes. People feel less moral responsibility so long as they are following the legal rules.

Maybe I could make the extraneous point here that sentencing guidelines are out of control. I saw a story this week about the people who are sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed while they were kids. I'm for punishment but nobody should be destroyed for life for something they did at age 14. Similarly, there was the case of the young man who was sent away for life for having images of child pornography on his computer. I'm as revolted as the next person, but the penalty for looking at images should not be greater than the penalty for murder. We should be putting more power in human discretion and less in rigid codes.

Gail: I agree, but let's get back to Penn State. The only positive thing that can come out of this is to drive home the fact that anybody who knows or suspects or hears that someone is molesting children and doesn't speak up – loudly – shares the responsibility. My friends in the day care world know this. The football people are supposed to be educators. Paterno just happens to be an educator who makes more than a million dollars a year.

I don't think making the 84-year-old coach retire and arresting two administrators no one has heard of is enough to make people understand how critical this is. I think Penn State should do the right thing and cancel the football season. Really.

David: I disagree on this last point. A lot of good young men have put a lot of time into playing football and being part of that team. I don't think they should be punished. If a history professor commits some atrocity it would be wrong to shut down the whole department.

Gail: I know the football players would be disappointed, but they'd still get to stay in school—which is why they're at Penn State, right? Right?

Here, we're talking here about a pathology, and educators who told themselves that reports about a colleague molesting a child just involved "horsing around." Whatever the guilt or innocence of the alleged molester, that response shows values that are deeply, deeply warped, which can't be fixed by making a couple of administrators take the fall. The fact that we're still dealing with cover-ups in the Catholic Church on this topic makes it clear that this isn't a message that's easy to deliver.

If football is cancelled, then every time a Penn State game isn't on, it'll be another reminder.

David: What strikes me about these cases is the psychopathic selfishness of the perpetrators. The molesting priests seemed utterly blind to the lifelong pain they were causing their victims. If Sandusky did what is alleged, he was oblivious to it. If Herman Cain did engage in this long pattern of harassment, then the size of his enveloping self-regard is simply gargantuan.

With Cain, last week I ignored a key fact. That with harassers it's rarely just one act; it's a pattern of behavior. It's not easy to prevent this behavior because the people who perpetrate these acts believe they are above the rules and will never be caught. That's the nature of their pathology.

Gail: Which puts it all on the rest of society to practice zero tolerance. So, zero football.