Thursday, November 17, 2011

In His Shoes

One of my favorite things to watch on TV is the ABC series “What Would You Do?” With hired actors and hidden cameras, the show puts unsuspecting, ordinary people into real-life moral dilemmas and captures how they react. Think “Candid Camera” with an ethical exam twist. All types of scenarios are presented, from bullying to racial discrimination to physical and emotional abuse, and it’s fascinating to see who does – and who does not – answer the call to action.

As a viewer, you can’t help but inject yourself into each situation to figure out how you would’ve reacted. This exercise typically does not go well for me, though, as more times than not my inaction would get me prosecuted under the Latham, Massachusetts “Good Samaritan Law.” But in a way, it’s good, because it serves as a wakeup call, a reminder of sorts to be more assertive whenever I have the chance to right a wrong – not just because it’s what my mother raised me to do, but because there are few things more embarrassing than sitting on your hands, only to have host John Quinones emerge from the shadows and say, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

And there’s probably not a person on the planet more familiar with that type of shame than Mike McQueary.

McQueary is the Penn State coach who, as a graduate assistant in 2002, walked into the Nittany Lions’ football complex and allegedly found Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the shower. Distressed and distraught, he retreated to his office and called his father.

Since the news broke about the Penn State atrocity, there has obviously been an enormous amount of outrage, and rightfully so. The whole thing goes so far beyond the typical scandals that it doesn’t really feel like it has anything to do with college athletics, because college athletics could never mean this much or impact people’s lives this deeply. With every new piece of information that is revealed, the more twisted and tragic the story becomes.

And in a case full of top-to-bottom negligence, the alleged negligence of McQueary is among the most maddening.

Forget for a second what he did – or, more accurately – didn’t do in the days, weeks, months and years after witnessing what he witnessed. Just focus on that March night almost a decade ago. In the moment of truth, face to face with one of the most horrific crimes that can be committed, he didn’t step in and try to stop it.

Instead of saving a little boy, he seemingly fled like one.

How could he have not done anything? That’s what everyone wants to know, and that was certainly what ran through my head as I read about “Victim 2” in the nauseating, mind-blowingly grotesque grand jury report on the investigation.

(While there are now rumblings from McQueary that he did step in, it’s a curious omission by the grand jury, and since their report is the lone piece of official evidence currently available, it’s the only thing we can go on at this point. That said, when it comes to this case, you never know what will come out next.)

The decision to intervene doesn’t seem like it should’ve been a decision at all. A 6’4” 220 lb. former college quarterback, McQueary was more than capable of physically breaking things up. And even if he didn’t want a physical confrontation, he could’ve done a million different things – scream, yell, flash the Bat Signal – to put an end to it.

And as a person, as a human being, don’t you have to find a way to help? When you come across a situation that is so wrong, when you know somebody – particularly a powerless child – is in need, don’t you have to do something about it? Isn’t that what anyone in their right mind would do?

Not necessarily. Just watch an episode of “What Would You Do?” and you’ll see that isn’t the case.

While there are some people who do get involved, the majority do not. They stay on the periphery, out of harm’s way, pretending to mind their own business. You can tell they’re aware of what’s going on by the way they constantly look over, and you can tell they’re conflicted by the expressions on their faces and the hushed conversations they’re having. But something is holding them back. Maybe they don’t feel it’s their place to intervene. Maybe they’re hoping someone else will take charge. Or maybe they’re afraid of getting punched in the face.

Whatever it is, they ultimately sit there and do nothing.

This lack of action shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, because – right or wrong – intervening in these types of scenarios is not our society’s standard operating procedure. If it were, as I heard one radio host say, there’d be nothing for ABC to make a show about.

Second-guessing, however, is part of our SOP. It’s become one of America’s greatest pastimes, right alongside baseball, apple pie and making celebrities out of people whose only accomplishment is having the same last name as O.J. Simpson’s lawyer.

When you’re removed from a situation, it’s easy to step back, assess all of the potential options, and rationally come to a conclusion about what should be done. You don’t have to deal with any shock or awe to your system. There are no threats to your physical or emotional wellbeing. There’s no fear of shame or embarrassment, and there’s no immediacy forced on your decision-making. More than anything, though, you aren’t restricted by your vantage point. You have perspective, a view of the big picture, that whole “seeing the forest through the trees” thing.

But things look a little differently when you’re down in it on the ground level.

A few months ago, I was on my way home after a long day, and I drove through McDonald’s to pick up something to eat. Pulling away from the second window, I noticed there were a couple of guys struggling to push their car up the driveway and into the parking lot. The car had clearly died on them, they were trying to get it out of the street, and it was obvious they needed help.

Immediately, I felt that surge of energy you get when you’re reflexively reacting, like a batter cocking his bat right before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. These people were in need, and I was capable of assisting them. I started to brake as I prepared to jump out to help them push.

And then I kept driving.

Instead of continuing to fuel me, that surge of energy I experienced was washed over by a wave of fears and rationalizations. What if the stalled car was a ploy to rob me? Should I really be talking to strangers? Hadn’t I already done my good deed for the day by giving that homeless guy a few bucks? I’m exhausted and tired and worn out…can’t I just go home and eat my cheeseburger before it gets cold?

Two seconds…that’s all it took for me to go from Good Samaritan to George Costanza.

And I wasn’t even dealing with anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing traumatic or threatening about the situation, nor did I have to do a double-take to fully comprehend what was going on. And yet, my mind was still racing and my insides were still churning, so much so that I virtually froze up, unable to locate logic and do the right thing. Before I knew it, I was fleeing the scene, trying to convince myself that it was okay, but knowing deep down that it was not.

I’m no scientist, but it’s been my experience that, unless you're a trained professional, your behavior in these types of predicaments is typically anything but balanced. While there may never be a more crucial time for rational reasoning and sensible judgments, they often don’t stand a chance of being heard – the stress and chaos drowns them out. It’s irrelevant what a person in their right mind would do, because you’re not working from your right mind, and you can predict and proclaim all you want about how you’d respond, but it’s impossible to know until you’re actually in the situation.

And that’s why I refuse to judge Mike McQueary for the choice he allegedly made.

I know, I know…what he walked in on was infinitely more desperate than what I encountered or what was featured on some TV show, which in turn made the consequences of his (in)actions exponentially greater, which would’ve seemingly made the call to battle that much louder.

But, in a way, all of that made the exact opposite just as possible. One second, McQueary was thinking about putting a pair of shoes away in his locker; the next he was trying to process and make sense of someone he revered perpetrating a sick, unspeakable crime, as the safety of an innocent child hung in the balance. Is it that much of a stretch to see how even the bravest person could shut down in that instance?

This isn’t about what McQueary should have done; it’s about understanding why he might’ve done what he did. Clearly, he should have stepped in and done everything he could to stop it, and he shouldn’t have backed off until the boy was safe and in protective care, and Sandusky was in police custody. That unquestionably would’ve been the right thing to do.

But the situation wasn’t that simple. And while I respect everyone's anger and frustration, I also I get how McQueary could’ve made the decisions that he made.

(What I don’t get, however, is how, after recovering from the shock of the encounter, he sat idly by when it was apparent that nothing was going to happen to Sandusky. How do you not speak up at that point? And then you continue to see Sandusky bring kids around the football complex and do nothing about it? That’s negligence I have a much harder time understanding, but that’s an entirely different story.)

Ever since all of this came to light, and the details have slowly trickled out, I’ve thought a lot about the case from every angle. I’ve thought about how the adults could stand by and let it happen, and I’ve thought about the poor kids who will forever be scarred by that inaction.

And as much as anything, I’ve thought about what it must’ve been like to be Mike McQueary on that late winter night in 2002.

Picture it…it’s a typical Friday evening, the end of a long day at the end of a long week, and you’re getting some things together before heading home, when suddenly you hear a disturbing noise in the other room. You go to check it out, having no idea what to expect, only to find that no level of expectation could possibly prepare you for what you end up seeing:

A grown man sodomizing a 10-year-old boy.

And it’s not just any man. It’s a man you’ve known and respected for over a decade, a man who’s been a pillar of your treasured community, a man who you admire and look up to and who has seemingly devoted his life to, of all things, helping children. Your brain scrambles and your stomach pretzels as you try to compute what it is that you’re witnessing.

What do you do?

Like everyone else, I’d like to think that I’d have the courage and the capacity to play the role of the hero. I’d like to think that my “fight” instinct would kick in, that I would incapacitate the man and take the kid in my arms and rush him to safety, all the while Coldplay’s “Fix You” is whaling in the background.

But I can’t say for sure. Maybe that makes me a coward, and maybe I’d have to answer to John Quinones, but it’s the truth. And honestly, there’s probably just as good of a chance that I’d do exactly what McQueary did, the same thing I still do as a 34-year-old when I’m lost and overwhelmed and in the need of guidance:

Call my father.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?