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On Sandusky: Gladwell Close, Deadspin’s Cosentino Closer

Regarding child sexual abuse recently, Deadspin editor Dom Cosentino and blockbuster author Malcom Gladwell politely traded barbs. The issue was whether Jerry Sandusky was ignored and thus abetted by PSU’s leadership (as Cosentino believes) or simply fooled- largely for understandable reasons- as Gladwell argues.

The fact is, neither writer’s take is inaccurate, and there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement where something as dark and misunderstood as this subject is concerned. That being said, I tend to side with Cosentino when it comes to wanting to hold the leadership of Penn State more responsible than Gladwell seemingly does. Cosentino believes Gladwell’s error is trying to fit the Sandusky story neatly into a universalist “parable” by ignoring relevant facts. It’s a criticism Gladwell has heard before, namely that the effort to make complex occurrences and dynamics explainable sometimes leads him to oversimplify.

But after carefully reading Gladwell’s description of victim identification, grooming, and hiding-in-plain-sight as predator characteristics, I don’t think he’s missed anything in terms of a general understanding. Indeed, and not surprisingly, Gladwell’s take on how child molesters “get away with it” is spot-on. I’m especially impressed with how he appreciates that “grooming,” the insidious, methodical process whereby predators seek to introduce sexuality into their relationships with children, is not just something predators engage in with individual children. In fact, families, organizations and entire communities are groomed by molesters. Gladwell cites a great example in a predator who didn’t go looking for children directly, but rather for their parents, playing the sympathetic sounding board in bars for moms and dads who seemed to need help with familial situations.

Sandusky, it is obvious now, groomed an entire region and dozens of communities, schools, organizations, families and individuals within that region. And beyond central Pennsylvania, his persona charmed sportswriters and other journalists, and won him no less than Presidential recognition for his Second Mile foundation. Gladwell is sharply accurate to state that Sandusky chose a perfect environment within which to hunt children. His boss was obsessed with the game and socially distant, disinterested and indeed lightly disdainful of Sandusky’s constant parade of kids. The ethos around Sandusky was one of male-bonding and physical contact. Communal dressing and bathing were typical and expected. He relished in a cover of not only charity and selflessness but also of deep masculinity and social acceptance. And of course, both the PSU community and Second Mile provided him a steady, endless stream of trusting victims and unsuspecting families.

However, this list of the things Sandusky enjoyed to the tragic detriment of so many and so much is not quite complete. The third crucial thing predators crave is the one Gladwell overlooks, and from which Cosentino’s criticism seems to stem although he doesn’t state it as such.

Predators need a cover for what they’re doing and/or who they are, and they need a victim pool. They also need, almost invariably, an institution of one form or another to protect them if they are detected, and to undermine efforts to shed light on their activities even if victims are lost as grist for the mill.

To be fair, Gladwell discusses Sandusky’s rich and protective environment as a factor that assisted him and it did. But what protected Sandusky wasn’t just the cover of football culture and a distant, other-focused boss. It was the leadership of Penn State University- Curley, Schultz, Spanier and Paterno- who made the series of crucial and damning decisions that allowed Sandusky to continue unchallenged. While none of them will ever admit it, or perhaps even be fully cognizant of it, those decisions were driven at least in part to protect the institution of PSU, it’s money-machine of a program, and it’s theretofore sterling reputation. How cynical a thought process this was surely differs for every one of the four. But doubtlessly it played a part.

Thus is the lesson that Gladwell perhaps missed, and Cosentino perhaps sensed as deficient in Gladwell’s analysis: The larger, more venerable and more powerful the institution, the more stubbornly its leaders will protect it. If necessary, to the detriment of anyone who stands vulnerable to something within its midst.