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An Alternative To The Standard Media Narrative On Joe Paterno

For the first time since 1965 we’re set to begin a football season without Joe Paterno as the head coach at Penn State, and in light of the November arrest of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for child abuse, his subsequent conviction and life prison sentence, Paterno’s firing and this month’s release of The Freeh Report, it’s become impermissible to harbor so much as a kind thought for the now-deceased Penn State coach. To say anything remotely kind about Joe Paterno and his legacy, it is said by the mainstream media, is to be virtually synonymous with a defense of child abuse. Harsh, to say the least, and after reading the Freeh Report, I don’t believe it’s accurate or fair.

Let’s begin by establishing that the mainstream media narrative is designed to ensure Paterno is seen as the villain. We’ve been given a storyline that says he was fully aware that Sandusky was abusing children, did nothing about it, and the inaction was because he wanted to avoid bad publicity for the football program. The men who wrote the Freeh Report promulgate this interpretation. If it’s true then, yes, Paterno is a villain and contrary to the lame defenses of some close to him, it would indeed wipe away the good things he accomplished. High graduation rates may be laudable, but are insignificant next to knowingly harboring a child abuser.

But what if the mainstream media narrative isn’t true?

The Freeh Report has been presented as an unbiased, outsider’s look at the timeline of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, the university response to it, and the culture of football at Penn State. But it’s hardly unbiased. The report investigates all facets of the university response to Sandusky, from Paterno to former athletic director Tim Curley, to former president Graham Spanier, to others and to the Board of Trustees. The one group in this that comes out fairly clean is the Board of Trustees. They are certainly not exempt from criticism, but the tone of criticism against the board is that of good-willed people who were just not vigorous enough in investigating and perhaps to naïve in trusting those around them. Paterno, Curley and Spanier are lynched. When you consider that it was the Board who commissioned this investigation and bankrolled Louis Freeh’s law firm, I find that more than a little suspicious.

Furthermore, the Freeh Report, at key junctures, oversteps a simple reporting of the facts and into interpretation. The interpretative paragraphs are concisely written and sound-bite friendly, perfect for media types who don’t want to read the whole thing . Sound bites should matter to a PR firm, not a law firm and that immediately gives away what I think is at least part of the motivation behind the Board in financing this report. Furthermore, the interpretations don’t  always correspond to the facts that are in the same report, and more to the point, they always take the most negative possible view of Paterno’s motivations. It’s here that I most strongly take issue with the Freeh Report and the mainstream media narrative.

REVIEWING THE TIMELINE

The first allegation against Sandusky came in 1998 and the police investigated the report. They found no evidence of wrongdoing. One thing I think is noteworthy here is that the police communicate with Curley and the president’s office during the investigation, not Paterno. One of the myths that Paterno’s defenders have had to deal with is the one that says he is the single most omnipotent figure in the state of Pennsylvania, able to snap his fingers and get things done. But the police in 1998 apparently didn’t think so. The channels of communication were clearly established as the football coach communicating with his superiors in the AD’s office and president’s office, and the police doing the same.

Then in 2001 came the incident most people are familiar with and it’s when former quarterback Mike McQueary saw something with Sandusky and a child in the showers and reported it to Paterno. McQueary was vague enough in what he saw that this particular incident was one of the two that a Pennsylvania jury acquitted Sandusky on and the former quarterback’s story also changed in its re-telling. Nonetheless, Paterno reported the incident to Curley and Spanier and heard no more.

It’s here that Paterno committed an extremely stupid error and it’s that he heard about the incident on a Saturday morning and then reported it on Sunday night, so as not to “interfere with anyone’s weekend.” You can fairly say the coach did not grasp the seriousness of what had been reported to him, but does waiting 36 hours to make a phone call constitute evidence of a desire to avoid bad publicity, as the media narrative and Freeh Report insist. Or is it a sign that Paterno was just naïve about Sandusky and perhaps skeptical of McQueary? If the Board of Trustees can be given every benefit of the doubt in the Freeh Report, why can’t Paterno, particularly given the fact that naiveté about the accused is in fact far more likely.

So we have a timeline which establishes that the police communicate with the AD & president, that Sandusky has been acquitted once, that the source telling Paterno of another incident isn’t always reliable and that he still forwarded the report , albeit 36 hours later than he should have. If there’s evidence of a systematic conspiracy to choose a pedophile over bad publicity I’ve missed it.

And if we don’t see it in this timeline of events, then we won’t find it anywhere else, because this is where Paterno essentially is out of the picture. There are criticisms made of Sandusky being allowed to still use Penn State facilities for his Second Mile foundation, which helps troubled youth. But the report itself clearly states that because Sandusky had emeritus status, the university could not bar him from the premises without a lawsuit. As a precaution, they did change the locks so he couldn’t show up with boys whenever he wanted. Given that Sandusky was not yet found guilty of anything, I’m not sure what more Penn State was supposed to do. Furthermore, the Freeh Report found no evidence that Sandusky’s $168,000 buyout in 1999 was tied to the allegations, nor was his being granted emeritus status. It’s much more likely that he chose to retire because Paterno had informed him he was not going to be the next head coach—which itself is not likely tied to the allegations given how long Paterno himself kept coaching.

The only things odd were the buyout being given in one lump sum and the granting of emeritus status, which some in the university were uncomfortable with. But with Freeh not finding evidence of a conspiracy in spite of being predisposed to believe the worst, it’s far more likely that these perks were because Sandusky was a revered figure, considered vital to Penn State’s success on the field over the years. Indeed, his dazzling coaching display in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, where Penn State upset heavily favored Miami, had become a part of college football lore nationally. You can certainly make a reasonable case that this kind of adulation and special treatment given to any football coach, much less an assistant, is a big part of the problem. It’s a fair point and one we’ll touch on later, but it’s hardly unique to Penn State and certainly not evidence of a conspiracy to cover up for a pedophile.

BEING ASKED TO ASSUME THE WORST

If you read the report, Curley and Spanier have their own set of problems regarding not getting the information to the police. But in its review 3.5 million pieces of e-mail correspondence, Freeh produced nothing which said Paterno (or, for that matter, Curley or Spanier) were motivated by a fear of bad publicity. Not even an e-mail saying “We can’t let this get out”, or words to that effect.  Let’s again stress that the one incident that was reported to Paterno was one of the two counts where Sandusky was acquitted. We have the benefit of 2012 knowledge and knowing that was a drop in the bucket of his other crimes. Paterno, with only 2001 knowledge, did not have that. The late head coach had secondhand reports of two incidents, both of which saw police or a jury let Sandusky off the hook.

Paterno was essentially being asked to believe the absolute worst about Sandusky from the moment anything was reported to him. There’s been no shortage of harshly judgmental comments about the football coach on this, but those interested in fairness will at least try to walk in Paterno’s shoes. So think of somebody you’ve known and worked closely with the better part of thirty years. They’ve been  huge part ofy our career highs and lows and you’ve shared a lot with them. Now someone you don’t have nearly the same confidence in comes to you and makes these accusations. Are you really saying you’d immediately assume the worst? You would give your long-time associate no benefit of the doubt whatsoever? You’d just assume they were a monster without proof? Yeah, right. In all likelihood, you’d probably have to summon up all your nerve just to report it to your superiors .

“But he’s Joe Paterno,” you’re ready to exclaim. And that’s fair enough. You probably can’t imagine yourself in a situation where you’re held in high esteem by a huge fan base, throughout the country at-large and considered a secular saint. So you therefore have a hard time grasping how the all-powerful Paterno could have failed to identify Sandusky. But what if Paterno wasn’t an all-powerful secular saint? What if he was just a normal person doing his job who found himself in a situation where “normal, doing your job” wasn’t going to be sufficient?

Let’s remember that it wasn’t Paterno who placed himself on the pedestal he occupied prior to November 2011. He was put there by others—from his own fan base, to the media, to college football fans at large. As Michael Weintraub, a Penn State graduate, put it on Grantland.com last November, every time Paterno tried to insist he wasn’t a saint, more adulation was heaped on him. It all created a myth that’s resulted in Paterno being judged by an almost impossible standard.

Finally let’s come to the fact that the criminal investigation of Sandusky had started in early 2011 and Paterno had testified to the grand jury. We have no evidence that he perjured himself, only that he cooperated. This was all a matter of public record before the scandal became national news, so if there was an attempt at a conspiracy it’s pretty inept, if making public testimony on the topic is a part of the plan.

THE CASE FOR THE COACH’S ACQUITTAL

It’s for these reasons that I think the media narrative about Paterno’s alleged conspiratorial activities cannot be substantiated. Perhaps there will be other evidence in the future which will indicate such, but the only way we can get there right now is to assume the absolute worst about him at every possible turn.  It’s my contention that if the case for conspiracy were brought to criminal court with only the Freeh Report as its evidence, that Joe Paterno would be easily acquitted of the charge of conspiring to protect a pedophile. Furthermore, I think he would also win in civil court, where the criteria is the preponderance of evidence, not just the lack of reasonable doubt. From his longtime relationship with Sandusky, to the established parameters of communication between police and the university, to the vagueness of the charges as Paterno likely saw them at the time, to the lack of a single e-mail even remotely alluding to the need to keep it quiet, to the natural bias of the Freeh Report itself, the percentages of what is likely suggest that Paterno was simply fooled by Sandusky.

And in that, he has a lot of company. As  a sympathetic Penn State writer John Ziegler notes, Sandusky fooled everyone. Child abusers are, by definition, master manipulators. Sandusky fooled the police, he fooled the people he worked with at Second Mile, he fooled social services, which allowed him to adopt children, he fooled even his own spouse who continues to believe her husband is innocent. Is it so hard to believe that Sandusky also fooled his boss?

Consider Paterno’s track record over the years. He took disciplinary action on an array of minor matters, including suspending his best running back before a big game because he took a suit and tie from an agent (Curtis Enos, 1996 Fiesta Bowl) and recently making players clean up the stadium after games because they had been involved in a fight which none were found to be at fault. His program’s graduation rate was always at or near the top of the country and the NCAA itself used it as a model for how other colleges could more effectively ensure athletes got their degrees. Paterno’s reputation came not from the fact that there was never trouble in Happy Valley, but that he always did what he could to clean it up. Is it really probable that he went from that, to the complete opposite extreme of harboring someone he thought was a pedophile? Or, again, is it possible that he was like everyone else, and was deceived?

A DISCLAIMER

I’ve questioned the motivations of the Freeh Report, so it’s only fair that I lay some of my own biases on the table. As the reader has probably guessed, I’ve been a longtime admirer of Paterno, though I thought the rhetoric about The Penn State Way got overly self-righteous at times (to the point that I wonder if a backlash against it isn’t driving a lot of the unfair responses to this in other parts of the country), but by and large I considered PSU a place where the leadership placed a value on the development of their players as human beings not just football players.

But my personal rooting interest lie with a conference rival in Wisconsin, where I’m from. Given that the sanctions applied to Penn State give Wisconsin a clear path to their division championship this season and likely set UW up as the prime challenger to Ohio State (Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are in the opposite division of the conference) within the division for years to come, my own fan interests are in fact supported, not hurt by the sanctions against Penn State. Therefore, while no one can ever be truly unbiased, I am hardly out to defend the Nittany Lion football team at any cost.  With that, let’s explore the questions of football primacy that have correctly risen in this debate.

THE CULTURE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL

What this is ultimately about is the culture of college football in this country. If Paterno were perceived as a football coach and nothing more, I doubt anything I’ve written would be controversial, or even necessary to say. But he was held to that high plateau, and Sandusky was able to follow him along with it because they won football games. Is this a cultural problem? Absolutely. But is it Penn State’s problem alone? Hardly.

The tragedy of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes could easily happen anywhere else, is this is where the NCAA was profoundly hypocritical in singling out Penn State, when they cut scholarships by nearly 25 percent and kept the school out of bowl games for the next four years. Let’s set aside for the moment the absurdity of the NCAA first recommending Penn State’s approach as a template to other schools and then turning around and declaring it a culture of corruption. Let’s instead acknowledge that critics of college football as is has developed in the United States have a point.

There’s no reason for any football coach ever to become a deity. If a coach were a virtual saint, he’d be in Africa feeding the hungry or volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center or in some way walking away from the rewards and honors of the world. Signing a multi-million dollar contract to coach a sport doesn’t mean you can’t be a decent person and positively impact the lives of those around me, you really aren’t a saint.  It wasn’t Joe Paterno that decided that it did. Nor was it Dean Smith, Mike Kryzeweski, or any other high-profile college coach with a good reputation for their program’s cleanliness. We, the people, did that.

The NCAA’s actions might have been more impressive had they said the culture of college football is indeed out of control, and they were cutting scholarships at every school across the board, from 85 to 65 (as happened at Penn State). A figure, we should note is still enough to go three-deep at every position and still have walk-ons. Then following it up capping salaries that can be paid to head coaches and sharing bowl game revenue across the board, including into the smaller conferences and donating a portion of the TV revenue to truly charitable causes.  It would have sent a clear message that football is longer the straw that stirs the drink and in fact made for more a competitive sport at a lot of schools, rather than an overhyped one at a smaller number—which Penn State is one, but most definitely not alone. The fact the NCAA didn’t indicates they were more interested in responding to an immediate media storyline rather than fixing a serious problem. Something  a less kind observer might call a cover-up.

CONCLUSION

It’s time to move past the standard media storyline, the NCAA’s PR-driven response and a Freeh Report that for all its strengths, is still financed by one particular group with a desired outcome in this case. The truth of it all is more complex, and it’s wrong that Joe Paterno’s good name has been savaged and that Penn State has been singled out by a media lynch mob.

What’s ironic is that on page 88 of the Freeh Report, the trustees complain that in presenting information to them, Spanier “filtered issues in light of the best possible outcome and presented information and scripted issues leaving no room disagreement even when it arose.” Ironic, because that’s how the Board’s own report has treated Joe Paterno. One trustee called this “managing of messages a recipe for disaster.” I couldn’t agree more.

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