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An Open Letter to Mike McQueary

On the plight of the whistleblower

Dear Mike,

We don’t know each other and I doubt we will ever meet, though I’m available if you want to talk. I write as someone who has reported on the soul-deadening impact of sexual abuse on Mickey Mantle, and as a person who has been touched by the same pathology. You are a moving target in a tragedy that is unfolding as inexorably as anything authored by Euripides but at the warp speed of 21st-century information technology.

In the days since your name surfaced as a grand jury witness testifying to the anal rape of a young boy in a shower room at Penn State, you have been vilified for doing too little and have received death threats for saying too much. Your thick thatch of red hair has become synonymous with the storm that is likely to touch many more lives than those we already know to have been torched by God’s most egregious sin.

What we now know about the unfolding tragedy of childhood sexual abuse — which is not a “sex scandal,” as many have redacted it to be — is a fraction of what we will come to know. There will be more allegations and accusations, explanations and evasions, bulletins by the hour. And we do not yet know the extent of the awful truth or the full extent of your actions or inactions — nor do we know what to believe about the difference between your grand jury testimony and your more recent statements.

What we do know is this: To grasp the full awfulness requires confronting a culture that militates against truth-telling, and an understanding of the ways in which trauma leads to evasion.

My heart aches for the eight little boys (identified in the grand jury indictment as Victims 1-8), for those now coming forward, and the men they have become, all of whom carry knowledge of a kind of shame Adam and Eve never faced in the Garden of Eden. But, as unpopular as this sentiment may be, my heart also goes out to you.

The world is not kind to whistleblowers — a term of art with particular resonance in football, the most hierarchical and repressive of organized sports, a world of “systems” and “programs” and scripted plays, where reading a medical report requires a security clearance, and practice fields are patrolled like Guantanamo Bay.

There is no free speech in football. Information is parsed by monosyllabic head coaches, who dictate who gets to speak to whom and when. ”The assistant coaches have a gag order not to talk to the media after Media Day,” Steve Swart, former sports editor of the Daily Collegian told the New York Times in 2004.

In what other sport do grown men including some 6-foot-5, 300-pounders — quake like little boys before coaches who hide their faces behind clipboards? In what other sport is the word “coach” an honorific as well as a job description? Have you ever heard a guy in a major league baseball locker room begin a sentence with, “Manager said”? Calling out a teammate — much less a head coach — is an act of depth-chart suicide. So to call out a coach you’ve known all your adult life, for whom you’ve played and with whom you’ve served, is a special kind of gut check.

Nowhere was the patriarchal culture more entrenched than in the insular town of Happy Valley, where coach Joe Paterno had statues built to him and championship trophies named after him years before his retirement was mandated by the Board of Trustees of the university. You were a product of that system, reared in the gospel according to Joe. In 2004, when you were the coordinator in charge of recruiting, you told Pat Jordan, writing for the New York Times: “I’m a State College kid. I stayed close to home. It’s a special place. But I’m biased. I grew up here and went to school here.”

You were the starting quarterback, the big man on campus in 1997. Some of your records still stand. But quarterbacks come and go. At Penn State, you told Jordan, “there is only one constant — Joe Paterno.”

You were a 28-year-old graduate assistant dreaming of becoming a coach on JoePa’s staff, as you did, and maybe even his successor — “but Joe will probably outlive me,” you told the Times. According to your grand jury testimony, you saw Jerry Sandusky raping a young boy, and you saw that they saw you. In the lighted shower, you confronted the heart of darkness.

According to the indictment, you went home and told your dad, and then, the next morning, told JoePa — which, at Penn State, might just have been harder and riskier to do than telling the police.

And now, the rage has turned on you. “Some want to string him up because he didn’t do enough, and others want to string him up because he broke the code,” said Richard Gartner, author of Betrayed as Boys, the definitive book on male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “He at least tried to get the information to the authorities and pretty much right away, the next morning. It’s sad, but not surprising that he is the focus of the rage. It’s easier to demonize those we don’t know much about, but harder to criticize those we idolize.”

Minds reel: He saw a crime being committed. Why didn’t he tackle Sandusky? Why didn’t he call the police?

Two possibilities come to mind. Perhaps, as you wrote to a friend in an e-mail obtained Tuesday by the Associated Press, you did more than your testimony revealed: “I did stop it, not physically … but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room … I did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police … no one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes for those 30-45 seconds … trust me.”

I wonder how much of what you saw in those 30-45 seconds you were able to see, by which I mean comprehend? Trauma is not the sole province of victims. If that were true, soldiers returning from Afghanistan wouldn’t suffer from PTSD. “Predators and witnesses can also dissociate,” said Gartner, who treats survivors of childhood sexual abuse in his New York City practice.

Trauma fractures comprehension as a pebble shatters a windshield. The wound at the site of impact spreads across the field of vision, obscuring reality and challenging belief. I know from my own experience that you can know exactly what happened and wonder: Did that really happen? Did I see what I think I saw? Equilibrium is lost. Sanity hangs in the balance.

So, your reply didn’t surprise me when a CBS correspondent appeared at your front door wanting to know how you feel. “All over the place. Crazy. Shaken up. Like a snow globe.”

Among those I’ve interviewed on the subject the people most sympathetic to you are those who have investigated predators, treated their victims, seen the graphic photos, and heard the excruciating tales. “To walk in and see it — it’s a horror and a reality that the mind can’t accept,” said former FBI agent Jane Turner, who investigated childhood sexual abuse cases during her 25-year career. “Your mind gives you what you can handle.”

Turner saw the worst of the worst, until she accused male higher-ups of a failure to prosecute some of these cases, which resulted in her demotion. She sued the FBI for retaliating against her after she filed a sexual discrimination claim. In 2007, a Minneapolis jury awarded her more than half a million dollars (later capped at $360,000). She knows the high price paid by whistleblowers, particularly those who speak the truth about the unspeakable. “It takes a huge amount of moral integrity to stand up and confront power, and confront it repeatedly,” Turner said. “What happens is the people in power dismiss you or marginalize you. Either you remain aligned with glory and power or you become a true whistleblower.”

Make no mistake: That’s what you are, though in football or prison you might be called a snitch. In Pennsylvania, you are protected by state law, which makes it unlawful for any employer to “discharge, threaten or otherwise discriminate or retaliate” against an employee in compensation or in terms or conditions of employment because the employee has made, or is about to make, a good-faith report to the employer or to an “appropriate authority.”

Which you did. One wonders why it took Tim Curley, the athletic director now on administrative leave, and Gary Schultz, the retired university vice president — who are both facing charges of perjury and failure to report a crime — 10 days to find time to meet with you.

Perhaps because they already knew, says attorney Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center in Washington, D.C. Kohn points out that in reporting to Schultz, you were reporting “to the manager of the campus police program. Under Pennsylvania law McQueary was under no legal obligation to go to the police, but the higher-ups were.”

When you were called to testify by the grand jury, you didn’t just expose a predator, Kohn pointed out. You exposed the morally lax administrators, directly contradicting the testimony of the now-fired university president, the vice president, and the athletic director. “But for McQueary, the coach [Sandusky] may still be there,” Kohn said. “The athletic department would be unchanged. That he didn’t throw himself under the bus doesn’t surprise me in the least. Look at the janitors. They didn’t tell anybody.”

Kohn was referring to the janitors named in the grand jury indictment who witnessed or heard about assaults by Sandusky but did not report them because they feared for their jobs.

In Turner’s phrase, you are “a saint with feet of clay.” She is not optimistic about your future. “Whistleblowers don’t get better-looking. They don’t get richer, and they don’t live longer. There is no national holiday for whistleblowers. Whistleblowers don’t get the Medal of Freedom. This man walked into the grand jury and told the truth. He could have brushed it over. You gotta give the guy credit for that. This guy will pay for the rest of his life for telling the truth.”

Here’s what you can do when the lawyers and investigators say it’s OK for you to talk. Advocate for the victims. Tell everyone who will listen that any settlement should include tuition for life for them and their heirs. And therapy, as much as they want and need. More daring still: Urge your alma mater and employer to impose a one-year death sentence on its now-tainted football program. Send a signal that something more than an injury timeout is necessary for this community to grasp the extent of the damage that has been done, not just to Victims 1-8, but also to an institution of higher learning where students rioted because their football coach was fired. You cannot just reset the clock in Happy Valley.

Governor Tom Corbett says yours was a moral failing. Perhaps now, as the father of a 2-year-old daughter, you wish you had done something different, something more. Perhaps, someday you’ll address that publicly or in court. But given the moral high ground that JoePa had staked out for himself, the self-righteous patina of the “Great Experiment” in doing right while playing well, a reasonable person could have reasonably believed that he would do the right thing with the awful information.

Why wouldn’t he?

Jane Leavy is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy and The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, which was released in paperback last month. She is a former staff writer for the Washington Post.


Previously from Jane Leavy:
Grown-ups Must Act Like Grown-ups
Mickey Coutnry
One of the Only Female GMs in Baseball
Remembering Mike Flanagan
One Round

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Filed Under: Penn State, Teams