Thoughts on Joe Paterno

Brad’s thoughts on Joe Paterno, at the intersection of two radio guys he respects.

JJ did an amazing show Friday, as news had broken about Penn State settling with a claimant in the Sandusky scandal who claimed an interaction in either 1971 or 1976, depending on the version of the story. In either case, this was much earlier than anyone had previously imagined. The disclosure came in context of Penn State arguing with its insurance carrier in court over paying some of the almost $100 million in settlements that Penn State had made with alleged victims.

This was a very powerful episode of Jay Mohr Sports. So powerful, in fact, that a draft for this anonymous piece landed in my email inbox with a followup text conversation that evening. That piece became far and away the most read piece on this site in less than one day, and the most commented piece via Twitter. Regardless of the facts of the Sandusky case and settlement, the author’s testimony stands on its own. We are all better for the conversation that emerged. We are all better for telling our kids what is right and wrong for adults to do them, and to insist that they tell us when adults violate their trust. Immediately.

There is another radio guy I follow on Twitter, John Ziegler. I first ran into him on the radio many years ago when he hosted the evening show on LA talk station, KFI. His leanings were conservative / liberatarian, and he was pretty funny. He came on after legendary blowhards John and Ken, and his intelligence and wit made him a great evening listen. If my memory serves me right, his departure from KFI came after John Kobylt refused to participate in the customary “next on KFI” segment with Ziegler at the end of the John and Ken show. After Ziegler left KFI, I kept up with him via email newsletter. He made a couple of interesting films, including one called The Framing of Joe Paterno, embedded here:

Ziegler is the most passionate and knowledgeable defender of Joe Paterno who doesn’t share his last name. He came at the story because it was another example (to him) of media frenzies spinning out of all control and proportion, reinforcing an uber powerful narrative that might not jibe with actual facts. I have listened to his presentation on this subject over the past couple of years, and I think Ziegler has some very important observations on this case.

I was happy to see JJ and Ziegler intersect on my timeline today, and apparently have a private discussion about their different opinions. They are both very intelligent and very thoughtful, seekers of knowledge rather than shills for causes. So I hope that their conversation was informative to both.

Here is where I come off on Paterno, based on my own experience. Paterno stands accused of, at best, not doing enough to stop Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys. And at worst, covering up such abuse or even enabling it. The general argument goes… How could he not know? How could he not be in control of the situation? The behavior went on for years, and more than allegedly.

There have been several incidents in my 45-1/2 years where “less than desirable things” have happened “under my watch” and my own integrity has come into question by people I loved and respected. Here is one of the more innocuous ones… When my little sister got married, she and her then fiance planned to get married in a park and have a friend of his family who I don’t think was associated with any church or religion perform the ceremony. I was asked by both of my grandmothers “how I could let this happen”. Such a question was quite presumptuous, and I was absolutely the wrong person to ask. I told them both that neither my sister, her fiance, or I were religious or affiliated with any church. I added that I knew that my sister had no desire to be religious or church affiliated. It’s a subject we had spent innumerable hours discussing through our teenage and college years. So my reaction to both of my grandmothers was to be truthful. I know that they were disappointed in me for not sharing their concern and not having or exerting any control over the decision. I was always very happy for my grandmothers for both their faith and their sense of belonging that church gave them. But I realized early on that it was not for me. Their presumptuousness over this incident stung, even though I understood that their worldviews were a bit constrained.

I’ve had other life experiences like that which give me great empathy for Paterno. He’s busy trying to be a great head football coach and run a great program. Who in their right mind would expect or even believe that he’d managed to hire a monster who happened to be a great defensive coach? Meanwhile, everyone is asking “how could he NOT know?” and “why didn’t he act immediately on any and all information passed in front of him?”, as if all of our attention spans and outlooks on human nature would obviously cause us to react better in the same situation.

However, Paterno’s blindness and/or inaction are unarguably a part of his legacy. The statue can’t go back up without that nuance attached, and unfortunately, we don’t have much in our artistic or design language to attach the nuance. His reputation cannot be restored to its pre-scandal immaculate state because we have very important questions that he is no longer here to answer.

I don’t discount that Penn State’s willingness to just settle claims, for an average of $3 million each, has created a very perverse incentive for prevaricators to come forward. But there is strong evidence that Sandusky had many victims. He was convicted by a jury on counts involving ten of them.

So here we are…

-Brad Hutchings

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