The fireworks between the family of the late Joe Paterno, the Board of Trustees, the national media and the fallout from the crimes of Jerry Sandusky got some ammunition this morning with the release of the Paterno Family’s answer to the charges leveled against the former coach in the Freeh Report last year. It’s the first official response given by the family of the late head coach and serves to level the playing field in the battle for public opinion and history.
Last July, I wrote a lengthy article going through the Freeh Report. I won’t rehash the entire piece, but my core problems with the report were not so much the factual data within them, but the fact that the Freeh Report took all the facts and spun them to create the worst possible presentation of Joe Paterno (along with former athletic director Tim Curley and former president Graham Spanier) in the public eye.
Furthermore, not enough emphasis was given to the fact that the Freeh Report was commissioned by Penn State’s Board of Trustees, an entity that had been hostile to Paterno and clearly had its own interests at heart. There’s nothing wrong with the Board telling its side of the story, but their report should not be treated as an unbiased look at the chronology of events surrounding Sandusky, while the Paterno report is seen as biased. The reality is both are biased, and that’s perfectly okay—all sides should get to tell their story, but it ought to be a level playing field.
I have not had a chance to read the report of the Paterno Family. I do intend to, but because my sympathies were with them anyway, I can’t imagine I’d find anything that would change my mind off what I wrote last summer. And I certainly don’t want to allow myself to get sucked into repeating this report’s opinions with the same gullibility that the national media blithely repeated those of the Freeh Report.
The media failed in that they refused to differentiate between the factual evidence given in the Freeh Report and the interpretative passages that drew conclusions. You can also call me enough of a media skeptic to think that it wasn’t that they failed to draw distinctions, but never really read the report to begin with, and just grabbed at the media-friendly soundbites that Freeh’s interpretive paragraphs were always couched in. Anyway, I found it all loathsome then, I find it loathsome now and my hope for myself is that when I sit down to read the Paterno Family’s report I’ll put the same effort in drawing the fact/interpretation distinction that I brought to the Freeh Report.
What I hope is that everyone—whatever side you stand on—will at least recognize that while the Paterno Family’s report is going to be, by definition, biased, it’s no more so than that of the Freeh Report. And I reiterate that this is fine all counts—we don’t expect a prosecutor or a defense attorney to be unbiased in a courtroom. We want to hear their thoughts and let the jury decide. But we’d consider it a grave injustice if the views of the prosecutor were considered “official” and the defense attorney’s arguments were taken with a grain of a salt.
COULD IT REALLY BE THAT SIMPLE?
One of the things that’s just baffling to me is why the simple explanation to this whole tragedy seems to be the one no one wants to accept. Jerry Sandusky was a child abuser, and like abusers, he knew how to manipulate people. We have it on record that he fooled the detectives that first investigated him. He fooled the people he worked with at The Second Mile Foundation, the charity he founded to work with kids. Sandusky fooled the state of Pennsylvania itself, whose social workers let him adopt six children!
In all of these cases, he fooled trained professionals whose competence or intentions have not, to the best of my knowledge, been questioned. Nor I am suggesting they should be. What I am suggesting is that if he fooled all these people, wouldn’t it be comparatively much easier to fool Joe Paterno? Whatever fame Paterno may have had, he was simply a football coach. Why is this all so difficult to believe?
THE NOTRE DAME-PENN STATE DOUBLE STANDARD
To grasp the double standards that have been applied to Penn State, I want to compare the tragedy, with another tragedy that occurred at Notre Dame in the fall of 2010. You may recall Declan Sullivan, a student videographer who helped the team by filming their practices for the coaching staff. That fall, there were heavy winds throughout the Midwest one week. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly opted to practice outside anyway, and to have the practice filmed. Sullivan went up into the scissor lift to do his job. The winds blew over the scissor lift and Sullivan was killed. Now consider the following…
*No one disputes that Paterno did what was legally required of him. The criticisms are that he should have done more. So Joe Paterno is expected to go above and beyond, while Brian Kelly’s basic responsibility to ensure the safety of his staff in bad weather is completely passed over.
*It was Kelly alone who made the decision to practice on a day when counterparts like Ohio State’s Jim Tressel decided to take their workouts indoors, with the Buckeye coach—unaware of what was transpiring in South Bend—citing his reason as a concern for the safety of the kids filming the practices.
*This gets even worse when you consider that Kelly could still have practiced outdoors if he wanted to make his players work in cold conditions, a common tactic for coaches who want to test the toughness of their team. There was plenty of time for players on the ground to be moved indoors if the winds picked up. It would have just meant forgoing having the practice on film. What Kelly wouldn’t do was make a choice between working in the cold or having the practice on film by going indoors. He insisted on having it all.
I’m not a lawyer, but this would seem to me to meet any standard of culpable negligence. I don’t think Brian Kelly made a conscious decision to place a kid’s life at risk so he could get a practice filmed. I think the head coach—feeling the pressure from himself, the school and the fan base to produce a winner was simply so driven that he didn’t given any thought to it at all.
It sounds a lot like a “football culture problem” to use the phrase the NCAA and the rest of the country self-righteously hurled at Penn State. When the need to win football games gets so out of control that it obscures all else. Therefore, why is Penn State on probation, denied bowl game opportunities and revenue and seeing scholarships cut, while Notre Dame was playing for the national championship? Why is the family of Joe Paterno forced to use resources to defend his good name, while the family of Brian Kelly debates whether he should go to the NFL or stay in South Bend?
Because the fact of the matter is that Kelly is more directly responsible for the 2010 tragedy at Notre Dame than Paterno is for what happened at Penn State—and that’s even if you take Paterno’s worst critics at their word, which I don’t.
There is, in fact, a serious culture of college football problem in this country. The fact I run this sports website should tell you how much I love the game, but I don’t see why an academic institution needs 90-plus kids on scholarship, needs to have practices filmed to begin with and needs to make millions in TV revenue, money that mostly does *not* get poured into legitimate aspects of the university mission. I don’t understand why coaches who run clean programs have to get fired if they “only” win eight games a year.
But the NCAA and the national media ran from the real questions about the culture of college football. As evidence one would need only cite the fact that the same media that demonized Paterno and Penn State, gladly showed most every Nittany Lions game this past fall on national television (between ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC). Asking the serious questions is not something the NCAA wants to do, nor is it something that Notre Dame, Alabama, USC or most any other power in college football wants to do. It’s a lot easier to make a scapegoat of someone and in that case that someone is Joe Paterno’s legacy and the program he left behind. But it doesn’t mean any of us have to buy it.