For me, the question that looms largest about the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal is this: How could someone see a man raping a child and fail to intervene? Fail even to call 911? I can contemplate many difficult, challenging, frightening situations that cause me to ask myself what I really would do if faced with them — and cause me to have no clear answer. This isn’t one of them. How could Mike McQueary not have done more?

The answer, I think, lies in the tradition — as old as football itself — of pretending that football is like the military. Players often talk about other players they’d go to war with. That linebacker is a warrior. The guys in this locker room, they know I’ve got their back. Football coaches, more perhaps than coaches in any other sport, play up the idea that the team is comprised of a besieged band of brothers who can trust only one another. (Even at the school where I teach — a Division III school with no athletic scholarships, thank God — the football players sit together at dinner and chant and shout.) Moreover, the coaches themselves are the primary beneficiaries of this governing military metaphor: they are your commanding officers, and to them you are uniquely and solely accountable. I bet it never occurred to Mike McQueary to call the police. I bet the first, last, and only thought he had was: I have to tell Coach.

This pretense that sport is war and a team an army obviously extends to other sports as well, but it functions most powerfully in football. In most other sports there aren’t enough players to make the metaphor work really well, and there is more room for purely individual initiative and achievement. But a football team really is like a company made up of three platoons — offense, defense, and special teams — whose assistant coaches are very like platoon leaders. It’s no surprise that McQueary thought only of telling Coach Paterno. He was reporting to his commanding officer, than whom no higher (or other) authority could be imagined.

Cross-posted at The American Scene.