Thursday, July 5, 2012

Shameful Distortion: The misguided media assault on Joe Paterno

Several well-respected sports media members, and many others, continue to defy reason with their unfounded condemnation of Paterno in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, this time due to leaked emails

Joe Paterno is being skewered again.

Columnists are outraged. Pundits are calling for the removal of his statue. Headlines scream his flagrant wrongdoing.

The Paterno Hunters are out in full force

Radio, television, online - it's open season on JoePa. Again.

Paterno's crime this time? That former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, in an email 11 years ago, said he had talked with Paterno.

What did Curley allegedly say, and does it really condemn Paterno?

Curley allegedly typed the words "after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday - I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps," as part of a larger email that Curley sent to Graham Spanier and Gary Schultz in 2001.
The email in question is one of multiple emails leaked to CNN. They are part of a thread of exchanges between Curley, Spanier and Schultz emanating from the massive Louis Freeh-led Penn State internal investigation taking place in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. 
The Freeh Report, now about seven months in the making and counting, will be based upon thousands of emails obtained from the university, primarily from 1998-2004, as well as more than 400 interviews, plus countless other documents and information, etc.
The leaked emails are from Feb. 26-28, 2001, and involve former PSU VP Schultz, former PSU president Spanier and Curley apparently trying to determine a course of action with regard to Sandusky.
Earlier that month, Paterno and then-football graduate assistant Mike McQueary had informed the PSU administration of McQueary's witnessing Sandusky alone with a young boy in the PSU football showers, allegedly doing something "sexual in nature." 
Schultz and Curley currently are charged with perjury for allegedly lying to the grand jury and failing to report suspected child abuse. (The leaked emails, therefore, possibly actually could have come from prosecutors investigating Schultz/Curley.) They have pleaded not guilty. Exactly what McQueary told them, and what they did about it, is at the crux of the charges against them.
(Of note: CNN says it does not actually possess these emails, and the network doesn’t speak with supreme confidence of their veracity: "CNN does not have the purported e-mails. However, the alleged contents were read to CNN." A story by Susan Candiotti updated July 2 on the CNN website does not list the number of emails leaked, but based on Candiotti's story it appears to be four or five: two from Schultz, and one from Curley and one or two from Spanier. One other note: Paterno never used email.)
Some in the media have reached the damning, explosive conclusion that Paterno, like the Godfather, was the guiding hand behind the actions of Spanier/Schultz/Curley based on those few vague words in a “purported” email not in CNN’s possession. Yet such a conclusion is wholly unsupported by anything else allegedly said by Spanier/Schultz/Curley in the leaked emails.
In fact, none of the three ever again references Paterno in any way. Aside from Curley's one mention, Paterno apparently is an afterthought in their decision-making process, as he is never spoken about again. 
Nevertheless, the email from Curley has the highly respected and usually independent-thinking (a rare quality in the national sports media) Dan Wetzel and Doug Gottlieb, among many others, saying it all but proves that Paterno lied to the grand jury and spearheaded a coverup of the Sandusky scandal.
Wetzel's story for Yahoo! Sports, in particular has triggered a tsunami of anti-Paterno sentiment on this issue, in large part because Wetzel then went on national sports radio shows to talk about it, and he also wrote follow-up stories. Many now are stridently blaming Paterno for the action, or lack of action, toward Sandusky in 2001 by Spanier/Schultz/Curley.
Spanier/Schultz/Curley apparently initially discussed taking the following three steps, or measures, in response to the McQueary allegation against Sandusky: talking with Sandusky asap regarding the future appropriate use of the university facility, contacting the chair of the charitable organization and contacting the Department of Welfare.
 (“the charitable organization”would be The Second Mile, the charity for at-risk youth Sandusky founded and from which he gained access to his victims. Last month Sandusky was found guilty of 45 of the 48 child sex abuse-related charges against him and will serve the rest of his life in prison.)
How drastically different things might have been for so many if they actually had enacted all three steps, most especially the last part - getting the Department of Welfare involved.
However, a day later, Curley allegedly emailed the following: 
"After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday - I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps. I am having trouble with going to everyone but the person involved. I would be more comfortable meeting with the person and tell them about the information we received and tell them we are aware of the first situation." 
Hmmm. It seems to indicate that Curley's thinking on how to handle this issue perhaps was influenced by Paterno. Maybe, maybe not. Anyone looking objectively can reach the conclusion that yes, possibly, Curley is indicating that words he exchanged with Paterno have influenced his thinking on this matter.
Or maybe not. Curley doesn't really say, doesn't explain, doesn’t elaborate, doesn't seem to make his talk with Paterno a priority in his email.
(Curley also seems to be referencing the 1998 allegation against Sandusky - “the first situation” - which was investigated by the Centre County district attorney but no charges were filed. It is story unto itself for another blogpost, though it is important to note here that Curley seems to indicate he, Schultz and Spanier all knew of it.)
So then, what else is there? Does Curley say anything about what Paterno told him? Anything they discussed? What were Paterno's feelings about the matter? Did Schultz ask Curley about what Paterno said or thought? Did Spanier ask about Paterno? What else is there?
Nothing. Despite all of these leaked emails between Spanier, Curley and Schultz discussing this matter, not a single additional time is Paterno referenced.
Considering these three administrators sent each other numerous emails about the matter and also discussed it face-to-face - they mention discussing it in person in these leaked emails - and perhaps also on the phone or by other means as well, and in all of the interactions between them there is just the one known, solitary, ambiguous mention of Paterno, what's the reasonable conclusion here?
That Paterno may have, at most, had some degree of influence. Or perhaps he had less than that. Or perhaps none. That's the logical range of influence of Paterno, based on the leaked emails.
There is simply so much more to know about this enormous matter, much of it to be revealed by the Freeh report, as well as during the judicial process against Curley and Schultz. Maybe it will show Paterno pulling the puppet-hands of the administration.
But based on what we know now, Paterno is at most a sidebar, and at least an afterthought in the Spanier/Schultz/Curley decision-making process with regard to this matter. Based on what we know from these emails, and from the grand jury testimony of all involved.
Right? Right.
Unfortunately, sadly, that's not the way some highly influential sports media members feel. They instead have irrationally launched into all-out assault mode on Paterno’s character and legacy, and other media members are taking their lead and following suit.
Somehow, Wetzel and others are completely ignoring the bulk of the information, and ignoring the fact that these emails are merely a carefully selected snippet, a morsel, in a much larger landscape.

(July 7 update: Among others deriding Paterno's influence based on this one solitary ambiguous email are the legendary Frank Deford, who made a bizarre analogy, comparing football coaches always trying to keep their players eligible to Paterno trying to do the same with Sandusky - keep him eligible - presumably to continue his life of child molestation, and George Dohrmann in the July 9-16 double issue of Sports Illustrated. Dohrmann says "it would appear that Paterno cast the decisive vote in keeping Sandusky's crimes quiet,'' which is a grossly inaccurate statement on two counts: first, it doesn't appear Paterno cast the decisive vote based on what we know, and second, what crimes? We now know Sandusky committed, at minimum, dozens of child sex abuse crimes against children. At that time, in 2001, at the most, Spanier/Schultz/Curley/Paterno were aware of two allegations against Sandusky, one of which he had been investigated by the Centre County DA and not charged.)
Here is Wetzel's central thesis, from which he proceeded to assert Paterno’s blame: 
"According to Curley's email, Paterno participated more than he ever admitted, including likely talking Curley - and thus the others - out of the plan to turn Sandusky over to authorities.
“Take a second for that one to sink in.”
We could take a month, but it still wouldn’t sink in because it’s an unfounded assertion based on that one email:
Think about it - “ ... likely talking Curley - and thus the others - out of the plan ...’’ - No, that simply cannot be ascertained from that email, especially considering Spanier/Schultz/Curley never reference Paterno again, as if he has no relevance to them. It is a bogus statement upon which a character assassination is based.
Wetzel continues: “It is now perfectly reasonable to postulate that Joe Paterno protected Jerry Sandusky ... ” 
Woah! Really? 
Wetzel, who it should be mentioned usually does very good work - he deserves a career achievement awesomeness award for his relentless attack on the corrupt bowls, crooked BCS and the phony college administrators who enable it - and has developed a good following, comes up extremely shortsighted on this one, at best. (See Wetzel's full story at this link:
Like so many, he wears the media’s standard-issue Paterno Hunter blinders that allow him to see only one thing: a guilty Joe Paterno protecting his buddy Jerry Sandusky and his beloved Penn State football program by bullying higher-ups into a code of silence. Despite the lack of evidence as such.
Let’s take a closer look at these leaked emails and Wetzel’s line of thinking.
Wetzel lays out the possible interpretations of Curley's email, yet he completely disregards numerous other plausible possibilities, because they don’t fit his premise. Wetzel essentially says the only realistic conclusion is that a power-wielding Paterno strong-armed Curley into strong-arming Schultz and Spanier into doing it the way Paterno wanted.
Wetzel never acknowledges possibilities such as Curley, of his own accord for his own reasons (yes, it is possible Curley actually could think and act for himself), wanting to alter the plan of action, but fearing Schultz and Spanier wouldn't go along with him. So Curley softly implies Paterno supports his new plan of action, hoping it will help sway Spanier and Schultz. (So soft is Curley’s implication of Paterno, no one mentions it again.)
Wetzel never acknowledges that Paterno and Curley may have only spoken on the subject in a most cursory manner, and that Curley, in the content of the leaked email, wanted to at least make sure he acknowledged a conversation had taken place between he and Paterno for the sake of full disclosure, so he briefly mentioned it.
Wetzel never acknowledges that Spanier/Schultz/Curley may have wanted to ensure the old curmudgeon Paterno was not involved at all, since this was clearly an administrative matter and this is what administrators do, handle administrative manners. Coaches coach, administrators administrate. Thus Curley's mention of Paterno was summarily ignored thereafter by all involved. 
Wetzel never acknowledges that the content of Paterno’s alleged talk with Curley could have been just about anything. We know virtually nothing about what they talked about, or how long they talked, or the specific nature of the talk, or why they talked - nothing - because Curley doesn’t say another thing about it. Nothing. Which sure makes it seem inconsequential. (We don’t even know if they actually talked, but for argument’s sake we’ll assume everything in the leaked emails is factual.)
Wetzel never acknowledges that perhaps Curley, in trying to confirm all of the information he had been told by McQueary and Paterno, in trying to make sure he understood it clearly, in trying to make sure Paterno had conveyed everything he knew to Curley, may have simply asked Paterno to recount what he had told Curley initially. This is especially possible considering that Curley and Schultz dispute the details of what McQueary told them.
Wetzel never acknowledges that Spanier/Schultz/Curley were extremely experienced, entrenched, relatively powerful, veteran, high-ranking administrators. He portrays them, especially Curley, who was then 47 (a few years younger than both Schultz and Spanier, who were in their early 50s) and in his eighth year as PSU athletic director, as little more than someone working at the whim of a Joe Paterno he had idol-worshipped his entire life, and who would face Joe's wrath if he defied him.
“Tim Curley, like so many in State College, stood in awe of Paterno,’’ Wetzel wrote.
Well, that may have been true when Curley was 20 or 25, perhaps even 30. But no professional adult as accomplished and mature as Curley in 2001 stand in awe of anyone from a professional standpoint. Once you’ve seen behind the wizard’s curtain, there’s no going back. Paterno and Curley had been colleagues for 20-plus years. This isn’t to say Curley could not be swayed or influenced by the legendary and powerful Paterno - almost surely he could have been on some matters. But playing the “awe” card on someone as acclaimed and experienced as Curley just seems farfetched. It’s possible Curley was still in awe of Paterno, but it’s very unlikely.
In reality, the Spanier/Schultz/Curley trio had been at the top of the PSU administrative tower for many years and were among the most respected and powerful in their respective fields in the Big Ten, if not the nation. Curley and Spanier were extremely highly regarded nationally during this century. Of note: They all continued unencumbered at their respective administrative posts after trying to strong-arm the 78-year-old Paterno into retiring in 2004, or at least into establishing a clear timeline to his retirement. In other words, while JoePa was barely hanging onto his job, they were at their professional peaks. Had PSU football faltered in 2005, they surely would have terminated Paterno’s coaching career. The point: They weren’t Paterno’s lackeys.
(Wetzel also is a little off-base with his PSU football facts, in this blog's opinion. He writes that in 2001, Paterno “didn't have much of a team for the foreseeable future.’’ We beg to differ. The 2002 PSU team finished the regular season 9-3 and was three plays from an undefeated regular season, losing two extremely controversial overtime games (one of which helped usher instant replay into college football) and the third by a score of 13-7 to national champion Ohio State. It also produced four NFL first-round picks and two second-rounders that spring. Sounds like a decent foreseeable future from the vantage point of 2001. Of course, the 2003 and 2004 teams went 7-16, leading to the famed post-2004 season meeting with Paterno.)
Wetzel never acknowledges the central thesis of this blogpost: That there is no mention whatsoever of Paterno in any way  in any of the leaked emails beyond the single vague mention by Curley.

Think about that: If Paterno truly had a meaningful say in things, then why aren’t Spanier/Schultz/Curley referencing him? The obvious reason is because Paterno was either a non-factor, or a small one.
Take a second for that one to sink in.
Basically, Wetzel has a few shovels full of dirt for evidence, and declares it to be Mount Everest. And others followed him up the dirt hill.
In Wetzel’s view, the only way Paterno isn’t now culpable of guiding a Sandusky cover-up is if Curley is lying about having talked to Paterno in the leaked email. The infinite other realistic possibilities, some of which are listed above, apparently don’t exist.
Wetzel also never acknowledges something that, frankly, virtually no one has acknowledged: Aside from the mother of a victim in 1998, and the mother of a victim in 2008-09, McQueary and Paterno are the only known individuals who, upon having seen or been told or having suspicions about Sandusky, acted by reporting it up the totem pole.
Take another second for that one to sink in. Besides the two mothers of victims, McQuaery and Paterno are the only ones known to ever make an attempt to alert higher-ups to Sandusky’s possible abuse.
Let's be clear about Paterno: He was a very powerful guy, he surely had opinions, and he may very well have tried to influence how the matter was handled, or at least may have told Curley what he thought should be done. Or maybe not. There is no real evidence of it, just the quantum leaps of logic Wetzel and others have made, propelled by an inability to reach any conclusion other than Paterno orchestrated a cover-up. Perhaps because that’s the most interesting and fascinating endgame to this most disturbing scandal. Perhaps because since Paterno is the only thing they've ever really known about Penn State, and because he's Paterno, he must have been involved. And because, for some reason, they can’t fathom any other outcome. They can’t recognize all of the other evidence, and don’t significantly acknowledge all of the unknowns.
Reach conclusion, contort evidence to support conclusion. Repeat.
Also, there is little reason to believe Spanier - who clearly had authority over Schultz, Curley and Paterno - would think it in his best interest to bow to Paterno on this matter rather than follow his own judgment, or the judgment of high ranking members of the Board of Trustees. (Another thing Wetzel overlooks - the possibility of BOT involvement.)
And there's little reason to believe Spanier would allow Curley to sway his judgment so significantly. This was not a sports or athletic department matter, where Spanier might defer to Curley's area of expertise and delegate to him appropriately. This was, potentially, way bigger than that. This was a decision for the boss. And Spanier was in year six of what would be a 16-year tenure, which is extraordinary for someone in his position. From amongst Spanier, Curley, Schultz and Paterno, without question Spanier would make the final decision, though he consulted his top administrators, and perhaps also consulted the board.
Paterno does have at least one known, significant failing with regard to the Sandusky scandal: He never followed up, apparently. Based on what is known, Paterno never followed up with Curley, Schultz or Spanier in any meaningful way to find out exactly what was being done about Sandusky.
Did he just assume they had taken care of it, as he has said? If he did follow-up, what was he told? What did they say to him to make him think enough was had been done, or that the right course of action, or an acceptable course of action, was being pursued? This is the big question with regard to Paterno and this scandal.
Wetzel is not alone in his irrational Paterno bashing, but he may have been the most influential in the most recent Rage-A-Thon against JoePa. Others wrote similar stores that reached similar conclusions - and often did so with a self-righteous indignance, as if trying to prove they have a higher ethical code by being so forceful in their disgust about this issue, as if the rest of us aren't totally disgusted and sickened by Sandusky, and flabbergasted it went on for so long.
All of these stories inexplicably dismiss the many other plausible possibilities for Curley's brief mention about talking to Paterno in the one email. They ignore the fact that Paterno is otherwise ignored by Spanier/Schultz/Curley, and they downplay the copious unknowns that still remain with regard to this matter. 
Some of the recent headlines/stories playing up the leaked emails have been utterly disgraceful and unethical.
Sports Illustrated's website, in the Truth & Rumors section, ran a blurb from the New York Daily News which is so grossly misleading and factually inaccurate that even a rag NYC tabloid should be ashamed, as should SI for picking it up.
Under the farcical headline (brace yourself for this) “Emails: Paterno told Penn State to keep quiet about Sandusky,’’ the brief story began with:
"Newly uncovered emails in the Jerry Sandusky case show that Penn State officials were on the verge of blowing the whistle on him -- but changed their minds after talking to coach Joe Paterno.” 
That of course cannot be reasonably deduced from the leaked emails. By why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
The Paterno family has responded to the leaked emails, requesting in a statement through their attorney that all emails used in the Freeh investigation be released:
"The public should not have to try and piece together a story from a few records that have been selected in a calculated way to manipulate public opinion. Joe Paterno didn't fear the truth, he sought the truth. His guidance to his family and his advisors was to pursue the full truth. This is the course we have followed for 9 months. It is the course we will follow to the end.’’
Releasing all of the emails is the right course of action - work emails of public employees are public record. It should be done in conjunction with the release of the Freeh report, not now, as it might only serve to muddle things further and diminish the Freeh report if a huge pile of emails suddenly flooded the Internet.
Ultimately, however, the Paterno family statement alludes to the main point here: Trying to reach grand conclusions about this most complicated situation based on a few leaked emails is folly.
The leaked emails have value, are worthy of discussion, and certainly will be meaningful when viewed in full context. But not yet. Prematurely crucifying someone with so little evidence is shameful.
When the full truth comes out, there will be plenty of time to synthesize the facts and assign blame.

But will it be done in a rational, reasonable manner?

Child sexual abuse is sickening beyond comprehension. A clear, objective perspective is needed to assess this disaster.

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