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The Unthinkable

Tough but well-written story about the aftermath of the Newtown shooting by Eli Saslow in the Washington Post:

They had promised to try everything, so Mark Barden went down into the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel. The families of Sandy Hook Elementary were collaborating on a Mother’s Day card, which would be produced by a marketing firm and mailed to hundreds of politicians across the country. “A difference-maker,” the organizers had called it. Maybe if Mark could find the most arresting photo of his 7-year-old son, people would be compelled to act.

It hardly mattered that what Mark and his wife, Jackie, really wanted was to ignore Mother’s Day altogether, to stay in their pajamas with their two surviving children, turn off their phones and reward themselves for making it through another day with a glass of Irish whiskey neat.

“Our purpose now is to force people to remember,” Mark said, so down he went into his office to sift through 1,700 photos of the family they had been.

The Bardens had already tried to change America’s gun laws by studying the Second Amendment and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. They had spoken at tea party rallies, posed for People magazine and grieved on TV with Katie Couric. They had taken advice from a public relations firm, learning to say “magazine limits” and not “magazine bans,” to say “gun responsibility” and never “gun control.” When none of that worked, they had walked the halls of Congress with a bag of 200 glossy pictures and beseeched lawmakers to look at their son: his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.

Almost six months now, and so little had gotten through. So maybe a Mother’s Day card. Maybe that.

Mark turned on his computer and began looking for the right picture. “Something lighthearted,” he said. “Something sweet.” He had been sitting in the same chair Dec. 14, when he received an automated call about a Code Red Alert, and much of the basement had been preserved in that moment. Nobody had touched the foosball table, because Daniel had been the last to play. His books and toy trains sat in their familiar piles, gathering dust. The basement had always been Daniel’s space, and some days Mark believed he could still smell him here, just in from playing outside, all grassy and muddy.

Now it was Daniel’s face staring back at him on the computer screen, alit in an orange glow as he blew out seven candles on a birthday cake in September.

[Photo Credit: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post]

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?

From Ali to Xena: 17

Friends and Connections

By John Schulian

When I became a sportswriter, it was as though I was inducted into a special lodge filled with lots of guys and a few women who shared my interests, my passions, my problems. I didn’t have to explain to them who Red Smith and Larry Merchant were. They thought it was cool if I slipped an obscure cultural reference into a game story, and they sympathized if an editor boned me on deadline. They even knew when I was looking for a job, sometimes before I did.

I never experienced anything like it during my five years on the city desk in Baltimore, and I say that even though I loved the Evening Sun and still consider many of the people I worked with as friends.  But when I started there, I was a rarity–a single person. Everybody else seemed to be married, with children, and dead-set on becoming middle-aged before they hit 30. Only later did more single people start showing up, bringing with them their passion for rock-and-roll and sports and carrying-on.

With sportswriting, on the other hand, I knew instantly that I belonged. And by the time I left newspapering, I was part of a band of ink-stained gypsies that seemed to turn up at every major event: Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dave Anderson, Blackie Sherrod, Eddie Pope, Furman Bisher, David Israel, Mike Lupica, Bill Nack, Dave Kindred, Leigh Montville, Ray Fitzgerald, Diane Shah, Stan Hochman, Joe Gergen, Pete Axthelm, George Vecsey, Jerry Izenberg. Unfortunately, Tony Kornheiser didn’t fly much, which cut into his traveling, but on those rare occasions when he did go airborne, he had to drink his courage first, which only made his legendary neuroses more fun than ever. Anyway, they were, and are, good folks one and all, and if I forgot to name anybody, the same description applies to them. I was proud to be in their number.

My best friend at the Post was Tom Boswell, even though he had made his peace with those rat bastards on the copy desk. He had better diplomatic skills than I did, for one thing, and he also loved what he was doing. Where I looked at things strictly as a writer, he maintained a fan’s sensibility. He was, and is, very much an enthusiast. I didn’t have a name for it until a year or two ago when I heard Robert Hilburn, the L.A. Times pop music writer for 40-odd years, speak. Here was a guy who was absolutely in love with the music and the artists and the world they lived in, a guy who was as excited by U2 as he had been by Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. Totally unjaded. Just like Boz. Boz is as fired up about Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as he was about his first Roy Sievers baseball card. He writes like a dream for readers who are on the same wave length as he is. That’s why he’s the biggest sportswriting institution in D.C. since Shirley Povich.

Boz and I were both single and about the same age when we met at the Post. He was finishing up a tour as the prep writer-–you’ve never read better or more imaginative high school coverage-– and he was moving onto the baseball beat, with golf as a sideline. If we were working late, we’d walk across the street to get dinner at the Madison Hotel. This is the same hotel where a Style section writer canoodled with Kathleen Turner when she was the hot-tomato femme fatale in “Body Heat.”  All I remember Boz and me getting there was Reuben sandwiches and an English trifle for dessert. There’s a reason why sportswriters are seldom lean.

Boz was great company, not just full of baseball stats and theories but an endless source of quotes from French philosophers and Emily Dickinson. The only knock on him was his threads–no natural fibers, colors unknown to civilized man. The kindest thing that could be said about his wardrobe was that it didn’t contain white shoes. Then, when I was working in Philly, he shows up wearing a blue blazer, a pink polo shirt, khakis and nice loafers. I knew instantly that he was in love. Only a woman who truly cared about him would have taken the time to dress him at Brooks Brothers. He married her, too.

The other great friend I made in Washington was David Israel, who was then the enfant terrible sports columnist at the Star, the city’s No. 2 paper. He was 23 or 24 and as different from Boz as Mick Jagger is from Tony Bennett. David was all hair and opinions and hot babes and finding out where the party was. I was dating the woman I would marry, so I wasn’t doing any night crawling with him. What we bonded over was writing.

I was looking for a way out of Baltimore when he hit Washington, and I remember my friend Phil Hersh, who was covering the Orioles for the Evening Sun, saying that David had liked a feature I’d written about a stolen pool cue. (My hustler friends again.) David asked if this guy Schulian was a city columnist, and when Phil told him I was a rewrite man, David threw the paper in the air. That’s when I knew he might be a kindred spirit.

He’s six years younger than I am, but he’s always been the best-connected guy I know. Back then he was already friendly with Breslin and Dick Schaap. He’d met them when he was a summer intern at Sport magazine. If I’m not mistaken, it was Breslin who helped him get the column at the Star. David had the chops to handle it, too. He was smart and outrageous and fearless -– he’d knock anybody and anything, and he did it with more style than whoever passes for a newspaper hell-raiser today.

I remember one time in Dallas, after a big Redskins-Cowboys game, the first thing he said to me as we were leaving was, “Did you use the tape?” The Redskins had lost and the tape they’d peeled off littered their dressing-room floor. It was forlorn and bedraggled, perfect for evoking the mood.

“Yeah,” I said. “You?”


Just a little thing, but also the kind of thing someone with a writer’s eye looks for.

Anyway, David and I talked a lot about writing, and he went with my girl friend and me to see some concerts, and I hung out with him on the road. Before I knew it, there was talk he might become the Star’s city columnist. He couldn’t have been there much more than a year, but in those days, dying No. 2 newspapers were always taking chances like that. That’s why they were so much fun to read.

David had this plan that if he became the Breslin of D.C., he’d lobby for me to succeed him as the Star’s sports columnist. I would have done it in a heartbeat. But the city column didn’t work out, so David stayed in sports and I stayed at the Post. I wasn’t beside-myself unhappy there or anything, but I knew I could be happier somewhere else. I just wasn’t sure where that was, or if I would ever get a chance to get there.

Then, later that year, David told me his old paper, the Chicago Daily News, was looking for a new sports columnist. The Daily News had been at death’s door since before I read it in grad school, and now its new editor, Jim Hoge, who was already running the Sun-Times, was importing talent for a last stand. David had covered college sports for the News before he became the Star’s columnist, and predictably he had stayed tight with Hoge.

“Tell him I’m his guy,” I said.

“You mean it?” David said.

“Damn right I do.”

Not long afterward, just before the NFL playoffs are about to start, Hoge comes to D.C. on business. He doesn’t have time for a sit-down  with me, but he wants to know if I’ll share a taxi out to National Airport with him. Hell, yes, I will. I don’t know what I said to impress him, but he asked to see my clips. And then I got a call to meet with the Daily News’ sports editor, a folksy, easy-going guy named Ray Sons. And then, wonder of wonders, I was the new sports columnist at the Chicago Daily News.

My first day on the job was Jan. 31, 1977. It was my 32nd birthday. Best one I ever had.

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From Ali to Xena: 15

The Seeds of Discontent

By John Schulian 

George Solomon made sure I hit the ground running. I covered a couple of Redskins practices- it couldn’t have been much different than covering the Kremlin. Then I took off for Detroit to cover a three-game series with the Orioles, who were very much in the pennant race. And to write two features on them, too, even though I’d never covered a big league game before and they had never laid eyes on me. And I had to cover the Howard University-Wayne State football game, too. My football story was a stinker, but the baseball stuff I could do, partly because I had always followed the game and partly because the Orioles were so easy to get along with. All I remember from that weekend is typing, checking my watch, grabbing cabs, and drinking Vernor’s ginger ale when it was still strictly a Detroit delicacy. It was a trial by fire, and I knew I’d passed when George apologized for not being able to play my Monday feature on Jim Palmer on the front of the section.

It didn’t take George long to figure out that I wasn’t meant to be a beat reporter. It was like I had SHORT ATTENTION SPAN written in neon lights on my forehead. Besides, we had Len Shapiro as the first-string Redskins reporter, and he was terrific-–intrepid, fearless, tireless, all in the face of the paranoid monster that was George Allen. Lenny will tell you today that covering the Redskins, the prize beat in the Post sports department, took years off his life.

Shirley Povich

I filled in wherever George wanted me, the Redskins, a big NFL game, the NBA. But mostly I wrote features and series. One series was about black dominance in the NBA (to show you how long ago this was) and another was about the NFL psyche. I remember Shirley Povich, a lovely, classy gent whose sports column was an institution at the Post for half a century, coming up to me after part one of the NFL series ran and saying, “This is too good for a newspaper.” I was deeply gratified by the praise, but at the same time I was surprised that Shirley, who had been the Post’s sports editor when he was barely out of his teens, would say something like that. I’d read somewhere that Jimmy Cannon had said nothing was too good for a newspaper. He wasn’t in the same league with Shirley when it came to being gracious, but I think Cannon was right on the money about that one.

I had freedom at the Post and yet I didn’t. Nobody told me what to write, so I could continue trying to figure out what my voice was. That was one of the great things about the sports page in those days: it was a laboratory for writing. As time went on, there would be stylish writing throughout all of the country’s best newspapers, much of it inspired by the Post’s Style section, where there was great work done on society dames, movies, TV, books, and rock and roll. But the Post’s sports section was my new playground, and I was happy to be there.

I would have been even happier if George Solomon had let me turn one of my ideas into a story once in a while. But George didn’t do business that way. He bubbled over with his own ideas, many of them good ones but some clinkers too, and he had the energy level of a hyperactive two-year-old. As a result he didn’t expect you to ever be tired. I remember coming off one of his hellish road trips-–Columbus, Ohio to St. Louis to Milwaukee to Toronto to Cleveland in five hectic, work-filled winter days-–and the first thing he said to me was, “Come on in the office. We’ll talk about what you’re going to do next.” I told him that what I was going to do next was pick up my paycheck and go home and go to bed. And that’s what I did.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I was probably the only writer on the staff who questioned authority. Everybody else was too damned nice. I mean, the place was crawling with good guys -– Tom Boswell, Dave Brady, Ken Denlinger, Paul Attner, Angus Phillips, David DuPree, Gerry Strine, Mark Asher. But I never heard any of them raise their voices. And they had reason to, particularly after the copy desk got through making a hash of their prose. All they’d do, however, was whisper among themselves while they licked their wounds. I couldn’t make myself do that. I marched into George Solomon’s office one day and said, “I’ve had more stories fucked up here in five weeks than I had fucked up in five years in Baltimore.” And that was the God’s truth.

From Ali to Xena: 14


By John Schulian

Like every other job candidate at the Post in those days, I had to get the approval of Ben Bradlee, the executive editor who had covered himself in glory with the paper’s Watergate coverage. One of the first things he said to me was that he liked my Jimmy Breslin style. As soon as I heard that, I knew I’d better develop my own style, and do it fast. If I was going to prosper at the Post, I couldn’t be a cheap imitation.

I realized I was in the deep end of the pool the instant I walked into the place. It was crawling with heavy hitters and on-the-make newcomers, intrepid reporters and positively wonderful wordsmiths, all of whom seemed to buy into Bradlee’s theory of creative tension. I’d hate to think of all the intramural treachery that went on there — and that was in addition to going out and bumping heads with the New York Times and L.A. Times and Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal. On top of that, the people at the Post seemed exceedingly full of themselves-–no surprise, I suppose, since I showed up in the wake of Woodward and Bernstein bringing down Nixon and his cronies. In fact, the paper was building its Batman and Robin an office back by the sports department. Nobody thought it was funny when I asked if they were going to take high school football scores on Friday nights. What did I know? I’d just come from Baltimore, where people took their work seriously, but not themselves.

I’m probably going to wind up sounding negative about my time at the Post-–it was not the greatest 17 months of my life-–but I want you to know that it was an honor to work there. I was never on a better paper, never kept company with more talented people, never had more of a sense of the glamour of the newspaper business. Bradlee was forever strutting around in his Turnbull & Asser shirts-–the kind with bold stripes and white collars-–and he loved to go slumming in the sports department so he could see what we’d dug up on the Redskins. He was big pals with the team’s owner, Edward Bennett Williams.

One day I get into the elevator to go up to the newsroom and a guy jumps in at the last minute. He’s dressed the same way I am: tan corduroy sport coat, blue button-down collar shirt, Levi’s, cowboy boots. One big difference, though: he was Robert Redford and I wasn’t. They were making “All the President’s Men” then, and Redford must have been hanging around to do research on Bob Woodward, whom he played in the movie. When we got off the elevator, it was like I was invisible.

There was a copy boy at the Post-–the head copy boy, to be specific-–who wore Gucci loafers and was said to have a degree from the University of Virginia. And there was a copy girl who was an absolute babe-–absolute babes are a rarity in the newspaper business–and was said to have a tattoo of a butterfly on her ass.

In the midst of all that whatever-it-was, there was Donnie Graham, son of Katherine, the publisher who stood so tall during the Wategate era. Donnie would be publisher one day, too, but on his way there, he spent time doing every kind of job there was at the paper, from loading trucks to reporting to taking a turn as an editor in the sports department. This in addition to having been a beat cop in D.C. for a year or two. All of which is to say he was as decent and down to earth as he could be. I forget what job he had at the paper when I was there, but he still used to swing by sports to shoot the bull. One day he comes up to me while I’m pounding away on my typewriter and asks what I’m working on. I tell him it’s a feature about a former University of Maryland quarterback who washed out of the NFL and is playing semipro football in Baltimore on Saturday nights. And I mean down-and-dirty semipro football, on a field as hard as an interstate highway. “Oh,” Donnie says. He didn’t need to say anything else. I could tell he thought this one was a loser. But I wrote the hell out of it, and when I came into the office the day after it ran, there was a note from Donnie saying that in the hands of a good writer, anything could be a wonderful story. With the note was a copy of George Orwell’s essays. Memories don’t come much better than that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the pressmen’s strike a month or so after I started at the Post on Labor Day 1975. The paper was getting ready to change from hot type to cold type and jobs were being lost in the backshop. One night everything went sideways, blood got spilled, the paper didn’t come out, and the next thing I knew, my fellow members of the Newspaper Guild and I were voting on whether to honor the pressmen’s picket line. I thought we should. Many more people thought we should cross it. And so we did. A few people actually left the Post because of that. I wasn’t one of them, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel a sense of shame and betrayal every time I crossed the picket line. I did, and it has stayed with me to this day.

I’m still not sure exactly why the Post came after me, particularly when so many good young sportswriters around the country would have sold their wives/mothers/firstborn for a chance to work there. Nor am I sure whether it was Donnie Graham or George Solomon who spotted me first. Sometimes I heard that it was my SI story on the Baltimore fight promoter that stirred their interest. Other times it was a funny but barbed Evening Sun feature I’d done about students at the school where the Colts trained standing up to the team’s abrasive general manager.

A funny thing about that fight promoter. Well, not funny, because he died in the time between my departure from the Evening Sun and my arrival at the Post. His name was Eli Hanover and he was barely into his 50s, one of those guys who’s so full of piss and vinegar that you figure he’ll outlive everyone. George Solomon told me he tried to get hold of me to write something about Eli, but I was off on an assignment for Sports Illustrated and nobody knew how to reach me. (Ah, those were the days.) The Post had a new sports columnist, a guy named William Barry Furlong who had had a truly distinguished career as a magazine freelancer, and he wound up writing about Eli. But all he did was lift things from my SI story, quotes and paraphrases and anecdotes. I don’t recall his having another source for his column. I hope he did. I hope he made at least one phone call. But if he did, I don’t remember it. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t say anything about it, not to Furlong, not to Solomon, not to anyone. It was one of those things I just filed away and said, Okay, pal, it’s good to know that’s how you play the game.

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