I was on vacation last week, during which I spent a fair bit of time discussing and accidentally arguing with my friends over the sex abuse scandal engulfing Penn State, which as you probably know by now entail allegations that former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children, that he had been witnessed doing it by assistant coach Mike McQueary, and that when the matter was brought to head coach Joe Paterno’s attention, it was handled in such an unsatisfactory manner as to prompt come critics to charge PSU of covering the whole thing up. (Gee, Bill. Nice to see you, too. Glad you started off with some light reading for us…)
Mainly, my discussions were confined to the dismissal of Paterno and whether it was merited (it was), and whether he or assistant coach Mike McQueary had a moral obligation to tell the police what they knew about Sandusky’s actions before referring the matter to Penn State administrators (they did).
At some point we discussed the degree to which the PSU football industry and culture factored into things (ranging from “not at all” to “entirely,” depending on who you talk to), but mainly we concerned ourselves with the legal responsibility to bring criminal behavior to the authorities rather to your employer. Penn State, and Paterno, fulfilled their legal obligations as defined by the state of Pennsylvania, dealing with this situation as they did. But in the minds of many (including, apparently the Penn State Board of Trustees), that legal obligation was a far cry from the moral obligation that McQueary and Paterno and the other administrators involved in this case failed to live up to.
My feelings on this issue run very strongly, fueled for the most part by what I read from the Sandusky grand jury presentment. You can read it for yourself, but I warn you it is not for the faint of heart. There are graphic details in this that will not leave your mind easily. I spent the better part of a day trying to process it.
I know for certain that were I McQueary, and had I witnessed what I had just witnessed, I would not have needed my father to tell me how to proceed. Facing a storm of negative commentary, Mcqueary insists he did not just leave that little boy to Sandusky’s mercy; he somehow intervened to stop the encounter. Bully for him, I suppose. All I know is that as the father of a boy about the age of the vistim in that particular case, I’d probably have left that shower with a Murder 2 rap on my hands. It’s easy to talk tough when you’re in the comfort of your study, typing away, though. It’s another thing to do right when the pressure is on and you don’t have a whole lot of time to deliberate.
In the case of PSU, there was at least one young boy who needed defending, and at a time when it mattered most, a whole chain of adults let that boy down. Why they let him down is open to much speculation. All I can say is that money is a great enemy of risk management, as is culture. And when you have an institution such as a major college football program that is both a massive revenue generator as well as the subject of a widespread exaltation by the school and all who live around it…well, you get an environment in which some really bad decisions can be made during times of crisis. This appears to be one such case of that.
Penn State is hardly the only place in the world that has failed to live up to its own standards at a moment of truth. Many of us might not remember the infamous Milgram experiment, but we ought to. This was an infamous psych experiment carried out in the 1960s to see how far, under tightly controlled circumstances, regular people could be made to behave in ways that was contrary to their own personal morality. And while there have been decades of collective sensitivity training, supposed awareness about coercion, etc., a 2008 recreation of the experiment turned up pretty much the same results. It seems that people can be made to go along with almost anything under the right circumstances. It is what makes heroic personal behavior during times of great stress that much more exemplary.
One such case is that of Mike Mantlo, a primary source for my recent feature “Tragic Tale.” It is about Bill Mantlo, a comic book writer with a great career who sustained critical brain injuries in a hit-and-run accident. After his health insurance kicked out, he was left to go to a nursing home that can’t help him, and the guy is spending the better part of his life trapped in a threadbare facility, and arguably better off dead. He has been this way for the last 20 years. He may very well be like this for another 20.
There are a lot of things that make Bill Mantlo’s story extraordinary, but one of them – to me, anyway – is how his brother Mike stepped in after Bill was hurt and took charge of his medical care. This was not an easy or simple thing, as Bill’s health insurer pushed hard to cut Bill’s coverage and Mike had to struggle to keep things going as best he could. He was forced to oversee Bill’s transfer from various facilities, which can be a harrowing experience under the best conditions.
When I first showed this story to my executive editor, he said straight out, “Mike Mantlo is the hero of this story,” adding that the degree to which Mike went to help his brother at a time when his brother could not help himself was extraordinary. Now, one might argue that taking care of one’s own family is a no-brainer. But I have seen enough times when the bonds of family are not nearly enough to keep people together, let alone get them to be decent to each other. And what Mike was tasked to do was a major, major commitment that took more than a little personal character. it would have been easy, really, for Mike to give up on Bill. But he never did. To this day, he still visits his brother regularly, making a long trip from Delaware to Queens, NY to say hi to his brother Bill. The staff at Queens-Nassau rehabilitation center and nursing home made a point of mentioning that, and I think it is only fair to Mike that I make a point of mentioning it here.
Mike was an great source to me, providing me with a lot of access to information about his brother at a time when a lot of other sources that should have been keeping records on Bill seem to have lost them or aren’t all that eager to share them with people. The reason why Mike was so open with me – and this is also important to note because I think it says a lot about Mike – is that he figured any exposure his brother’s story might get could not only help Bill, but more importantly, it could draw attention to the critical gaps in our healthcare system that let a guy like Bill fall through and end up in a facility like Queens-Nassau where all they can really do is provide basic care and mark time. Mike didn’t want anything for himself out of this story. And he is realistic about his brother’s prospects. But he figured that if one last piece of good could come out of his brother’s ordeal, it might be that somehow, things could be changed so that there need not be another Bill Mantlo story in the future. Unfortunately, PPACA won’t see to that, so who knows if the system will ever be sufficiently tightened and improved to keep folks from falling through the cracks.
It probably won’t be. But as long as this system is in place, it underscores a fundamental truth that Mike is a strong example of: when we hit those crises of life and health that can either turn our own lives upside down, or turn our families into mourners, it is often our family upon whom we must rely to do the right thing and see us through such difficult times. As Penn State and the Milgram experiment show, doing the right thing is rarely as easy as we would like to pretend that it is. But Mike Mantlo has shown that it is by no means impossible, either, and I think that if you could ask Bill what he thought of his brother Mike, you’d get a pretty good review. None of us are perfect, and all that can be asked is that we try our best. Not all would have done what Mike did for Bill. May that we all find the ability to do so, however, if and when that time comes.