Commentary

Penn State: Danger in the unknown

We know. We think we know, anyway. But what if what we know isn't enough?

Originally Published: November 18, 2011
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Penn State StickerPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesWhat we see isn't always what we get. And we aren't seeing the whole story in State College yet.

At the beginning of this week, it was safe to say that many of the people following the Jerry Sandusky story figured they knew exactly what they thought of Mike McQueary, a Penn State assistant coach of whom they'd probably never heard one week prior.

Perhaps it felt like a fully formed opinion. It was strong enough, after all. McQueary was the guy who said he witnessed the rape of a 10-year-old boy in 2002 and did nothing more than go tell a football coach the next day.

[+] EnlargeMike McQueary
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesWe still don't know for sure what Mike McQueary did or didn't do in 2002.

By Tuesday, that image began to change shape. That day, purported fragments of emails sent by McQueary surfaced in which he maintained to friends that he did, in fact, go to police to tell them what happened -- and that he didn't leave the sordid scene involving Sandusky until he "made sure it was stopped." A source corroborated to ESPN that latter portion of McQueary's account.

On Wednesday, another shape shift. Wednesday was the day on which both the Penn State campus police and the State College police said they had no record of any such conversation with McQueary. For that matter, there was no mention of McQueary contacting police in the grand jury's presentment of the case.

And with that, it is official: Public ignorance has become the currency of the Sandusky scandal. Not willful ignorance, although surely there have been ample amounts of that, but a more ordinary, everyday, lack-of-basic-information, we-just-don't-have-it-yet type of ignorance. It is terrifyingly obvious that many people are operating off shards of factoids and little else, and drawing broad conclusions based upon those shards, and generally not knowing very much with absolute certainty, because the case so far doesn't allow for that.

And now, a history lesson, meant not as a parallel but only as a reminder. In March 2006, a woman told police in Durham, N.C., that she had been beaten and raped by three members of the Duke University lacrosse team during a party at which she'd been hired to perform as a stripper. Slightly more than a year later, after the accuser changed several key details of her account in subsequent interviews, charges against all three athletes were dropped by prosecutors who said the men were "victims of a tragic rush to accuse" by an overreaching (and soon disbarred) district attorney.

[+] EnlargeDuke Protest
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisThe scene on Duke's campus in 2006, as students demonstrated over allegations of rape involving members of the lacrosse team.

Those are the bookend facts of the Duke case. But it was what came in between the initial accusation and the ultimate legal finding that bears recalling here. All questions of the lacrosse players' guilt or innocence aside, the story quickly morphed into a national referendum on the Duke lacrosse team, on the culture of the sport in general, on the insularity of athletes at a big-time sports university. It was a story of entitlement and rampant disregard, of arrogance and power.

It was a story that wound up being wrong in several very particular ways. Still, the public had its answers. It had its opinions, formed early and very concretely. And when the gray edges eventually encroached on what many wanted to see as a black-and-white case, it got very messy and stayed that way. It remains so.

Back to the now. Did McQueary go to the cops? Maybe. Quite possibly. Or perhaps not at all. Perhaps McQueary is trying to revise history. Perhaps the campus police kept no record of the unhappy conversation. Perhaps there was no conversation. Perhaps there was.

What we don't know about this story could fill a book. And, probably very soon, it will.

So there is something to be said for caution here, for moving carefully toward final judgments. I don't know what happened to Mike McQueary, although Wayne Drehs' brilliant piece on McQueary's situation lays out a possible scenario that might help explain how the story got to where it is … if indeed the story is where anyone thinks it is just now.

[+] EnlargePenn State fan
Mario Tama/Getty ImagesSo far, what we don't know about an alleged cover-up at Penn State outstrips what we do know.

But the problem with Drehs' reporting, for some, is that it casts far too much gray area on a story they'd rather see in black and white. They want villains, not humans. As I said a minute ago, many people had made up their minds about McQueary by the start of this week. Joe Paterno, too, and Gary Schultz and Tim Curley and Graham Spanier.

It's that kind of a story. It is precisely heinous and despicable enough to demand a sort of instant accounting. But to what extent? Of how many? And on what basis of fact?

The scandal involving Jerry Sandusky and Penn State might not travel the same path as the Duke story did. It is not the same story. It certainly might not be subject to a legal reversal on the scale of the Duke case.

What the stories share, though, is a strikingly similar sort of venal public response, a certain "they're all guilty as sin" quality that permeates so much of the national conversation. If nothing else, recent history suggests that at least a modicum of restraint today might prove wise later on. Here's hoping it doesn't get lost in all the shouting.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His book "The Voodoo Wave" is in international release. His work "Six Good Innings" was named a Top 10 Sports Book by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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