Penn State lesson learned: Question authority and don’t drink the Kool-Aid

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I’m not a team player. Ask anyone.

This has a potential downside: I will never score a touchdown in a Pop Warner game, pledge a fraternity, or — most likely — storm a beach or military compound. On the plus side, if I ever witness a man raping a 10-year old boy, I will not simply “inform my boss.” This is because I do not have proper respect for authority or chain of command. I’m a rugged individualist. I am, perhaps, cynical.

A caveat: We should all be glad there are people out there who put the team ahead of the individual — who — if their boss says “jump” they only ask: “how high?” We should all appreciate and respect authority; in many ways, the people who subject themselves to authority keep us safe and free.

But while respecting authority is healthy, blindly following any person or group is a form of escapism. It’s cult-like. And I think this sort of “rah-rah” ethos is at the heart of the Penn State controversy.

Let’s recap.

According to reports, in 2002, a grad student named Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year old boy in a shower. According to reports, McQueary didn’t call the police, but instead brought it to the attention of head football coach Joe Paterno.

What did Paterno do?

He didn’t call the police either. Instead, he followed protocol and reported the allegations to his boss, Athletic Director Tim Curley — who apparently decided not to notify authorities.

The obvious question is — why didn’t someone call the cops?

The Saint Petersburg Times’ John Romano posits a theory which rings true to me:

The first rule of a locker room is that whatever you see in here stays in here. You do not tell police, you do not tell reporters, you do not tell anyone outside of the program. It is a philosophy so ingrained that, in this case, it superseded basic human dignity.

… Players are taught early on that they are part of a family. And you never betray the family. That goes for the athletes, the coaches, the trainers and all the support staff.

It sounds honorable when you’re talking about the little stuff, but it gradually engulfs everything in its way until you realize lifelong values have been nudged aside.

There is something really great about teams. Honestly — I know some people who won’t even hire a new employee unless he or she played a team sport competitively. There is something positive to be derived from having some guy in an windbreaker yell at you to do more laps. I get that. Honestly, it can instill discipline.

But I’m going to tell my son that — while it’s okay to play along with this — just don’t ever fully drink the Kool-Aid. At the end of the day, you stand alone — and you do the right thing.

Matt K. Lewis