Graham Spanier Trusted Sandusky—Would You Have?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What was Graham Spanier’s role in the Jerry Sandusky case? Why was Graham Spanier fired as President of Pennsylvania State University? Did he deserve to be fired?

We’ll cover the events leading up to Graham Spanier’s exit from Penn State, and discuss why you probably would have acted just as Spanier did in his position.

Graham Spanier and Pennsylvania State’s Leadership Team 

One day in 2001, Michael McQueary entered the locker room of the Lasch Football Building at Pennsylvania State University. He expected the building to be empty, so he was surprised when he heard slapping sounds coming from the showers. Looking around, McQueary saw Jerry Sandusky, retired defensive coordinator of the Penn State football team, showering (naked) with a “minor individual.” McQueary later said that the boy looked to be about ten to twelve years old. Sandusky and the boy were standing close enough to be touching. 

McQueary didn’t know what to do. He ran upstairs and called his parents to tell them what he had seen. Some days later, McQueary went to Penn State football’s head coach, Joe Paterno, to tell him about what he saw. Eventually, Paterno took McQueary’s story to the university’s athletic director Tim Curley, senior administrator Gary Schultz, and president Graham Spanier. 

A full decade later, in 2011, Jerry Sandusky was finally arrested and convicted of 45 counts of child molestation. Eight young men accused Sandusky of sexual abuse. Once Sandusky was behind bars, heat began to fall on Penn State’s leadership team. Tim Curley and Gary Schultz were charged with conspiracy, failure to report child abuse, and obstruction of justice. Previously beloved university president Graham Spanier was fired. Six years later, Spanier was convicted of child endangerment. (Shortform note: A federal judge has since thrown out Graham Spanier’s conviction.)

It might seem easy to point the finger at these men and say that they allowed Jerry Sandusky to roam free and abuse young boys. You might think that they were putting their own self-interests or the success of the university above the law. But taking into account all the evidence we’ve seen of Truth Default Theory, here’s the real question: If you had been president of Penn State at that time, would you have done anything differently? Or would you have acted just as Graham Spanier did?

The Problem with Trush

Imagine how Curley, Schultz, and Graham Spanier must have felt when Joe Paterno came to them with this disturbing and complicated story. What was more likely: That Jerry was being his goofy self with one of the kids he knew well or that he was engaging in some sort of inappropriate behavior that wasn’t even distinct enough to make Mike McQueary step in and stop it? 

The three men sat around and contemplated the best way to handle the situation. They even reached out to the university’s attorney, Wendell Courtney. Courtney thought he just needed to have a word with Sandusky—to warn him to be careful so he wouldn’t be called a pedophile. 

Curley, Schultz, and Graham Spanier made a human error by defaulting to truth, but does that deserve to be judged as a criminal offense? No one tried to put the parents of Larry Nassar’s victims in jail for failing to see the abuse that was going on right in front of them. It was assumed that those parents simply trusted the community around their children. 

The same level of trust should be given to the communities around every child. If everyone defaulted to assuming that every football coach was a pedophile, there would be no more sports. We default to truth because we have to for peace of mind. Sometimes, that trust is ruined by betrayal. In those instances, the people whose trust was broken deserve to be sympathized with, not blamed. 

Of course, if someone like Harry Markopolos had been president of Penn State at the time, he would never have defaulted to trusting Sandusky’s intentions. He would have immediately leaped to the worst possible conclusion. But it’s important to remember that isn’t the most natural human reaction. 


People with a high threshold for belief, those that default to truth, make the best kind of leaders because they have a capacity for loyalty. Sending people like Curley, Schultz, and Graham Spanier to jail sends the message that we want leaders like Harry Markopolos, who are always on the lookout for conspiracy. But there would be consequences.

Graham Spanier Trusted Sandusky—Would You Have?

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  • Why we're all terrible at understanding the intentions of other people
  • How these misunderstandings can lead to tragic, fatal consequences
  • The 2 things you can do to better understand complete strangers

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Malcolm Gladwell's "Talking to Strangers" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Talking to Strangers summary:

  • Why we don't understand strangers
  • How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
  • How Hitler deceived so many world leaders

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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