Last week, Special Investigative Counsel Louis Freeh, who was tasked with looking into sexual abuse allegations at Penn State, released a comprehensive report examining the factors that allowed for the systematic abuse of children at the University by longtime assistant coach and youth development charity head Jerry Sandusky. In his report, Freeh condemned a culture that placed institutional reputation above the protection of vulnerable minors and recommended specific changes to university policies and procedures to bring Penn State into compliance with the law and to protect against future instances of misconduct.
Some 24 hours later, in a bizarre, rambling ESPN radio interview, baseball analyst and Boston Red Sox adviser Bill James, questioned the propriety of placing the lion's share of culpability on the late Penn State football head coach Joe Paterno. Describing Paterno as an old man with a limited understanding of the situation and "few allies,"James cast blame in all directions, from the cops who investigated the initial allegations, to the assistant coach who witnessed a sexual assault, to the media who he claimed "built up a smokescreen behind which Sandusky operated."
At one point, defending Paterno's actions in the face of warning signs, James claimed that "showering with boys was quite common 40 years ago." Predictably, the internet revolted, and the Red Sox quickly distanced themselves from James' statements.
Now, James' comments are easy to dismiss as the rash ramblings of an analyst operating outside of his depth, and many of his assertions are suspect. For example, on page 68 of the report, Paterno describes having knowledge that Sandusky's early 2001 contact with a minor was explicitly sexual in nature. Despite this, the police were not contacted and Sandusky’s access to the campus was not revoked.
They also seem to misinterpret the public’s anger. While some critics are disappointed that Paterno didn’t vigorously follow up on the initial warning signs of sexual abuse, there seems to be particular revulsion to the concept of “Paterno-ism,” an institutional tendency not unique to Penn State, college football, or even sports. Within that revulsion is an awareness of the hypocrisy, criminality and espoused exceptionalism that often develops within well-meaning, but insular organizations of all types headed by leaders who become the living embodiment of noble ideals.
Still, in his much maligned effort to deflect blame from Paterno, James speaks some truth. Focusing solely on Paterno –– a visible and influential node –– while useful shorthand, ignores the constellation of individual actors that contributed to the system of corruption and indifference.
According to the report, actions attributed to Paterno, but requiring the acquiescence of a much wider circle such as the football department’s interventions on behalf of players facing disciplinary sanctions (and bestowal of privileges usually reserved for professors) eroded employees’ confidence in administrative procedure. In one case discouraging janitors who witnessed an assault from coming forward for fear of “losing their jobs.”
But what of James’ “blame the media” argument? Does that deserve an honest appraisal as well?
In recent days, columnists including ESPN’s Rick Reilly have expressed remorse over their role in mythologizing the virtues of Paterno’s football program. Others have put forward their take on why Sandusky’s abuse went “undetected” for so long.
Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute for Journalism fingers Pennsylvania’s “Open Records Law.” Despite receiving an annual appropriation from the state of Pennyslvania, unlike community colleges and other “state affiliated” institutions, Penn State isn’t required to open its records to the public, in this case the media.
According to Tompkins’ reporting, this means that information on Penn State’s police department’s 1998 investigation into sexual misconduct by Sandusky might have come to light sooner. As it stands, Pennsylvania’s State police didn’t gain access to their campus counterparts’ investigation until January 2011.
Sara Ganim, whose March 2011 story on the Sandusky grand jury reportedly led other victims to come forward, seems to support this notion, noting that some reporters “call Penn State the Kremlin.”
So where does this leave James’ claims?
On the one hand,James’ enthusiastic defense of Paterno is hard to stomach. On the other hand, with a failing of this magnitude it feels almost foolish to dismiss a wider consideration of society’s role in preventing child abuse and insuring true integrity in sport.
With Sandusky convicted, Paterno deceased, and college football facing yearly scandals of epic proportions, maybe it’s time to examine the media’s coverage of sports-related activities and the factors that influence that coverage, including both the laws and our expectations.
For an interesting interview considering the recurrence of a Penn State-style scandal recurring elsewhere, see The Atlantic's Patrick Hruby's interview of Chris Gavagan, a director producing a film on sexual abuse in sports. Feel free to share other useful resources in the comments.