"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Virtual Reality of Joe Paterno

Saturday, January 14, 2012, marked the publication of Joe Paterno’s first comments on the record since the Jerry Sandusky scandal exploded and led to the end of his career as he, and everyone else, knew it. Sally Jenkins’ piece reads like a prologue to an obituary, with the necessary exposition to put the past two months into some sort of context.

Removing the descriptive language, though, reveals the quotes from both Paterno and his wife, Sue that shape Jenkins’ story. I pulled a few that I found particularly jarring:

1) “You know, it wasn’t like it was something everybody in the building knew about. Nobody knew about it.”
— Paterno, on his insistence that he was unaware of a 1998 police investigation into the report on the boy who has come to be known as “Victim 6”.

Analysis: The same thing was said about Tiger Woods’ inner circle when questions of “how much did they know and when did they know it” came about regarding his serial philandering. Jo Becker’s report in the New York Times from November 10 of last year provides insight into this notion. Becker spoke to several investigators who doubted Paterno’s assertion of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, know-no-evil.

An excerpt from Becker’s article:

“You have to understand those statements in context — there is nothing that happens at State College that Joe Paterno doesn’t know, or that Graham Spanier doesn’t know,” one person involved in the investigation said. “Whether or not a criminal case went forward, there were ample grounds for an administrative inquiry into this matter. I have no evidence that was ever done. And if indeed that report was never passed up, it makes you wonder why not.”

Joe Paterno was the most notable and powerful man at Penn State. According to the anonymous investigator, he was the most powerful man in State College. In 13 years since that investigation took place, Paterno’s assertion leaves us to interpret his involvement in one of two ways: either a) he knew what happened and was responsible for organizing a broad cover-up, or b) like Pete Rose has done every day since he was banned from baseball in 1989, Paterno crafted an alternate version of the events that he believes so passionately, it has become truth. This second supposition aligns with one definition of truth listed as “conformity with fact or reality.”

2a) “He didn’t want to get specific. And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”
— Paterno, describing Mike McQueary’s call to him after witnessing Sandusky having sex with a boy in the showers of the Penn State Football facility in 2002.

2b) “I had no clue. I thought doctors looked for child abuse in a hospital, in a bruise or something.”
— Sue Paterno, when asked if she knew anything about Sandusky’s alleged child molestation.

Analysis for 2a: Paterno’s recollection that McQueary didn’t want to be specific in his description of the actions is consistent with the original report of McQueary’s statement. Numerous reports since November, and the grand jury report, confirm that Paterno did, in fact, run it up the chain. But another quote from Paterno is particularly revealing:

“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”

Again, we come back to Paterno’s power. He could have easily told the administration and the Board of Trustees about the McQueary call and the accusations and said, “Do what you have to do.” He also could have cleaned house. Expertise and knowledge of male rape had nothing to do with it. Neither did procedure. Many of Paterno’s players have called him a father figure and have said he taught them how to be leaders. Do true leaders back away from a challenge or shrink in the face of adversity? That’s what Paterno did. He did not practice what he’s preached.

Analysis for 2b: Sue Paterno added that we will become a more aware society as a result of this. That’s a nice thought, except millions of people both inside and outside Happy Valley have been aware of child abuse for years. When similar salacious charges ravaged the Catholic Church several years ago — this was international news — awareness heightened to the nth degree. Sue Paterno’s statement does not reflect well on the cultural awareness and intellectual faculties of either her or her husband, despite their ability to recant the Classics or demonstrate their love of opera, as Jenkins noted.

3) “Right now I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna do, ’cause I don’t want to sit around on my backside all day. If I’m gonna do that I’ll be a newspaper reporter.”
— Paterno on his current state of affairs.

Analysis: Before saying, “If I’m gonna do that I’ll be a newspaper reporter,” Jenkins observed that Paterno grinned and smiled; an obvious attempt to try to rankle the veteran reporter. Paterno should know, though, that the enterprising work of reporters not sitting on their backsides and exposing his role in this mess are part of the reason he is out as Penn State’s head football coach and is no longer a tenured professor there. One reporter in particular, Sara Ganim, could very well win a Pulitzer for her work on this story. Paterno demonstrated in both nonverbal and verbal terms why he kept Happy Valley in such a hyper-controlled bubble. He hated reporters.

None of Paterno’s comments should come as a shock. There is no new information. From this interview, it’s clear Paterno believes that we are naive enough to think his story is the truth. Should we believe he was naive enough to have never heard of male rape or child molestation? Paterno may believe we as the public, are that stupid. What if, based on everything that has come out since November, we believed the same of him?


2 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 16, 2012 11:05 am

Excellent job, Will and a fine job at the Atlantic by Cohen who scrutinizes Jenkin's work as well. Here's Cohen's conclusion:

Of the scandal, as Jenkins notes, Paterno had earlier said: "In hindsight, I wish I had done more." What exactly does he wish he had done? Jenkins never tells us and we don't even know whether she asked.

"Paterno is accused of no wrongdoing," Jenkins writes, but that's not technically true, is it? He is accused of no crimes, that's true. Jenkins writes that "authorities have said he fulfilled his legal obligations by reporting to his superiors." (my emphasis). And to my knowledge he is not a defendant in any pending or conceived civil cases against Penn State or Sandusky. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been accused, by tens of millions, of a form of wrongdoing that goes beyond the letter of the law or the scope of the jury.

"No fewer than five formal investigations" are still underway into the scandal, Jenkins writes, and for Penn State "the best case scenario is that the institutional leaders were guilty of blindness, and an unfeeling self-absorption...." Does this include Paterno? We don't know. Jenkins instead asks us to feel pity for him; to place the scandal into the larger picture of his legendary life. Fine-- this is what apologias do. They seek to change hearts and minds. They seek to remind people of the long arc of a life and not its worst moments.

My takeaway from Jenkins' work, however, is this: if Paterno wrongly failed or refused to properly deal with the 2002 allegations in the ten long years before the scandal broke, he sure is having to deal with them now. Some mistakes we pay for right away. Some mistakes we pay for later. And some mistakes we never pay for. Maybe Paterno believed he would never have to pay for this mistake-- or even confront it. But Karma's a bitch, isn't it, whether you are a legend or a loser.

I'm genuinely glad that Paterno got his side of the story out in the public realm-- in a controlled and controlling manner that entirely befitted his reputation as a head coach. And the frail old man should be "shocked and saddened" about what transpired under his regime. But if he is looking here for a form of absolution, looking for it with a few pitiable quotes under the watchful eyes and ears of his handlers, looking for it while contending at the same time that he'd never heard of "rape and a man," he's looking for it in all the wrong places.

3 Will Weiss   ~  Jan 16, 2012 12:35 pm

Thanks, Glenn and Alex. [2] ... You left out one possibility: What if Paterno doesn't believe he made a mistake? Thats the inference I make from his quotes. Still nothing about the victims. For someone with five children and 17 grandchildren, who purports to be a humanitarian, that is baffling. Maybe Jenkins didnt ask. Her piece was five pages on the Internet. I fear JoePos's book will be about 350 pages of more of the same.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 16, 2012 1:29 pm

3) It will be fascinating to see what Joe Posnanski does in this book.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 16, 2012 1:47 pm

Sally Jenkins answers readers' questions: http://wapo.st/wbriBz

6 thelarmis   ~  Jan 16, 2012 2:01 pm

this whole thing is still sooo shocking to me.

my old penn state band - which is one of the 2 best ensembles i've ever been in my whole life - is in the midst of trying to set up a couple of big reunion shows in State College this summer. i'm trying to have it set up as a benefit, giving proceeds to a charity fund for the victims.

i lived in state college for 5 years in the early to mid 90's ('91-'96). i was never a big football guy, but joepa was bigger than the school and entire Central PA area. sandusky was a huge name there at the time.

for half my time at the school, i lived in the building(s) closest to the football stadium. i may have been around before the alleged attacks, but of course, i never heard a thing about this horrible tragedy. it's all so sad...

but i will forever remain Penn State Proud. this unspeakable horror doesn't do anything to change my personal experiences and education i received from a world class learning institution.

7 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 16, 2012 2:29 pm

I understand why it is so upsetting, especially since you have a lot of Penn State pride. But why is it shocking?

8 thelarmis   ~  Jan 16, 2012 2:37 pm

[7] just that there's so much badness in the world. it makes me sick...

9 thelarmis   ~  Jan 16, 2012 3:18 pm

i'm wearin' a penn state shirt today! : )

10 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 16, 2012 3:18 pm

Yes, I understand. And then there are men like Paterno whose behavior is also appalling.

11 thelarmis   ~  Jan 16, 2012 3:34 pm

oh yeah. i'm certainly not defending paterno. not defending any of the guilty or negligent parties.

however, i will defend the honor of my school, to the hilt. there's inexcusable inaction on the part of a few, but that shouldn't define our history from 1855 on. and now, with the education degree i got from there...i'm off to teach!

12 Will Weiss   ~  Jan 16, 2012 9:14 pm

[11] thelarmis ... your school is awesome. Nothing I've written about or commented on in this space reflects my feelings about Penn State. The best reporting -- I mentioned Sara Ganim -- and analysis is actually coming from Penn State graduates currently working in the media. Their perspective has been illuminating. It's a smaller scale, but I can empathize with you. I felt similarly after the intern that ended Steve Phillips' career at ESPN and exposed his sex addiction gave a bad name to Ithaca College and the LA Internship program. Doesn't change my passion for my school, or the program that gave me my career.

BTW, I checked out your site. Damn, you've got some credentials! Looking forward to checking out more of your stuff.

13 thelarmis   ~  Jan 16, 2012 9:55 pm

[12] thanks, will! oh, and none of my comments/posts were in defense of anything you wrote. i think all of the stuff you've written here on the subject is top-notch: informed, thought out & well written!

ithaca has a good music program. gordon stout, the long-time percussion instructor there is world-class!

THANKS for checking out my site, much appreciated! i'm hard at work finishing my 2nd solo percussion cd. i hope to release it by the end of spring. there will be a tribute to Todd Drew on there! : )

at the same time, i've made a lot of progress on the compositions for my 3rd (and final...) solo percussion disc. there's a lot of "detail" work that needs to be done, but i think i'm gonna let it rest for awhile. gotta concentrate on releasing the sophomore effort and i'm teaching a lot at the music college, plus personal stuff...

i do plan on putting up a goodly amount of old audio in the coming months, including more jazz-oriented recordings i've done, plus an old hard-rock band from NY!

i know you play some drums. if you ever feel like talking about it or have any drum-related inquiries, please feel free to shoot me an email anytime!!!

14 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Jan 16, 2012 10:19 pm

[13] Japan Solo Tour!! Japan Solo Tour!! Mr. Big sold out the Budokan arena so in comparison I am SURE you can sell out the Tokyo Dome!

[3][4] I'm done with Joe Poz now. His reaction to this scandal was baffling, actually defended Joe Paterno and his wife...really strange.

15 thelarmis   ~  Jan 16, 2012 10:25 pm

[14] mr. big are HUGE there!!! funny, i had a students' dad mention the live at budakon dvd just this afternoon.

i got the reunion cd and it's good. individually, they're all pretty heavy hitters. sheehan's of course a bass deity of the highest order. i'm pretty sure you know how i feel about paul gilbert - not only he is the world's greatest rock guitar shredder, but he's a *massive* musical influence on me. his solo stuff is beyond unreal and he's a great guy. like you, he also married a japanese girl (his keyboard player) and learned the language.

if i toured japan, at least i wouldn't have to worry about tracking down a good marimba! man, i'd LOVE to do clinics/masterclasses there. need a company to back me and send me over. i think my fusion trio could do alright, but we don't have the "name power"...

16 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Jan 16, 2012 10:34 pm

[15] The fusion trio could get gigs I am sure but you have to do PR first, spread the cds around to some clubs, send video links, etc. Chat to you offline about that.

Cold wave here (for Tokyo, nothing as bad as NYC) so really pining for spring and baseball now.

17 thelarmis   ~  Jan 16, 2012 10:41 pm

[16] oh, there's NO way we'd be able to make that happen. hell, we can't even get it together enough to play a gig in the city where we all live! : ~

18 Boatzilla   ~  Jan 17, 2012 5:04 am

Thanks Will. Sharp analysis.

It's interesting how this story, the cover-up and the attitude of Paterno and the others in power, parallels the hundreds (thousands?) of Catholic priest abuse stories.

And when you consider the fact that Paterno is Catholic...

I am not sure what I'm getting at, but I was a serious Christian for the first half of my life. When I moved away, one of my biggest issues with Christianity (beside all the ridiculous fabrications) was the God as a Father figure concept.

If I made a god, she would most certainly be a mother. And I bet a lot of people share that notion.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver