Hitting the brakes on the Penn State scandal

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Unfortunately, that’s what the media failed to do last week as they screamed for the head of anyone involved in the latest alleged scandal. This time Joe Paterno was being walked to the guillotine.

Unfortunately, justice takes time. Paterno deserves a chance to explain what he knew and when he knew it. Tim Curley deserves a chance to do the same. And yes, even Jerry Sandusky deserves a chance to take the stand and plead his case in front of a court of his peers. Why? Because that’s what we (are supposed to) do in the United States.

Still, the vast majority of commentators continue to babble around pretending like they have the moral high-ground when they pound the table and call for anyone implicated in scandal to be fired and fired NOW.

The fact is, I don’t know what happened in 2002. You don’t know what happened in 2002. And the media does not know what happened in 2002 — we should stop pretending like we do.

Has the Duke Lacrosse scandal taught the media nothing? Has it taught our country nothing? It certainly taught me that when scandals appeal to our basest instinct, our most human emotion to protect the most vulnerable people in society, it is not always the best time to think and process information rationally.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

It’s what many commentators failed to do as they breathlessly engaged in a furious battle of one-upsmanship over the past week.

Last Saturday when the charges broke Dan Wetzel, in an article on Yahoo, demanded that Paterno answer questions about the case, a fair enough demand.

On Nov. 6, the next day, Paterno issued a statement that “raised as many questions as it answered,” according to Wetzel. Although, he noted, Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation. His possible moral failing was still in question.

On Nov. 7, Wetzel focused on Penn State university president Graham Spanier and said, “And while there are plenty of unanswered questions about his decision-making, it isn’t JoePa who runs the place. It’s not JoePa who oversees the entire campus, police department included. It wasn’t JoePa who signed off on the pathetic decision by Curley and Schultz to simply ban Sandusky from bringing children on campus rather than contact the cops.”

But on Nov. 8, Wetzel suddenly called for Paterno to be fired stating, “It needs to be done prior to Saturday’s home game against the Cornhuskers. If Penn State feels Paterno is too much of a liability or distraction to finish the season, then he is too much of a liability or distraction to coach even a single game.”

On Nov. 9, before Paterno was fired that evening, he questioned how it would look to allow Paterno to coach, saying, “This isn’t just about what’s right and what’s wrong. This is about damage control.”

Not about right and wrong? But it is.

If I remember correctly, the facts didn’t change from Saturday to Wednesday, the Grand Jury report didn’t morph, but Wetzel’s (and I don’t mean to single him out because nearly all columnists did the same thing, it was just too darn easy) opinion shifted drastically as the media was pulled closer and closer into the vortex of emotion that it created.

Unfortunately, if one were to tune into ESPN or read headlines across the country, you might think Paterno was the one accused of molesting children.

Paterno Should Rot in Jail,” exclaimed The Daily Beast.

Really? Does the press want to start putting people in jail for failing morally? Well, then start building the prisons; you’ve got a lot of new inmates.

Yes, it was a horrible mistake in retrospect, but Paterno had one piece of the Sandusky puzzle. A puzzle that took authorities three years to put together until they were able to have enough evidence to arrest Sandusky last Saturday.

But if you believe it was a cover up through-and-through, let me remind you that you have to accept that Mike McQueary, McQueary’s father, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier all knew that Sandusky raped a boy and then decided to protect someone who hadn’t been employed by the school for three years.

If the facts turn out that way, then so be it. I will merely defend each person’s right to have their story heard.

A member of the Penn State janitorial staff allegedly witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in shower in 2000. He told the rest of the staff and he was so distraught that they feared he might have a heart-attack, but they didn’t tell anyone.

I don’t see headlines exclaiming for those people to rot in jail because it doesn’t make for good headlines, it doesn’t make for a good scandal and it all makes for bad journalism.

Cancel the Penn State Season!” wrote Michael Tomasky in one last attempt to win the most ridiculous assertion contest.

Anyone who watched the Penn State/Nebraska game on Saturday can attest to Tomasky’s foolishness. Watching the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers gather on the field arm-in-arm before the game to pray for the victims of the alleged assaults was, quite literally, one of the most touching things I’ve witnessed … but maybe I’m a softy.

And let’s not forget the fans did the same thing after Nebraska won while the fans in Happy Valley cheered. If that doesn’t represent all that is good and right with collegiate athletics, I don’t know what does.

Tell me that that game shouldn’t have been played. Tell me that the money raised to heighten awareness of child abuse at the game shouldn’t have been collected. Tell me that the wounds that we mended on Saturday by returning to a sense of normalcy shouldn’t have been.

Justice will be served rightly if we give the law and the people involved time to find facts and eventually find guilt or innocence.

If Joe Paterno heard that Sandusky performed sex acts on a child and did not press Tim Curley to call police, he deserved his firing if not more. If Joe Paterno simply heard there was inappropriate activity and reported it up the chain of command, as law required him to do, he deserves an apology.

Easy as that. Too bad it’s not easy for the public to wait.


Chris Calkins says:


Thank you. I hope you stay in journalism, we could use some reasonableness right about now. The scale needs to be balanced with thoughtful and reflective journalists who understand the need to let the fact speak and that the journalist who works to make that possible, also has an impact. Well done.

ray says:

This is the only article that looks at the facts. The media has hit Penn State with a witch hunt.

Here are the facts: Sandusky has showed with boys. He is accused of criminal action from assault and rape. Unfortunately he hasn’t driven a car off a cliff.

Now, in 2002 McQueary states he witnessed a rape and told his officials. One month later he is at a fund raiser with Sandusky. His story has changed from the grand jury to a few days ago.

The only eye witness is McQueary. His story is different from Paterno, and the two PSU officials.

I believe in 2004/5, Sandusky admits to a mother with police listening in he showered with a boy.

He was investigated again wrestling with a kid at a high school.

Grand Jury starts digging up info on Sandusky almost 3 years ago.

The attorney generals office has an eye witness account of a rape which is Mcqueary.

I believe they arrest the two PSU officials for two reasons: 1) to deflect potential criticism on the police failure to move quickly on this matter 2) to give McQueary credibility.

How the hell does a report of a child rape take 3 years to investigate? Clearly the Attorney Generals office felt that this would have a better chance as a wide range long investigation. That is poor.

I cannot believe Paterno, McQueary, his father, and 2 PSU officials hear a story of a child rape and kick it aside. I have to guess that the story McQueary states to these folks is unsure and potentially troubling. That makes sense. He doesn’t break up sex between a man and an eleven year old.

The AG’s office and Grand Jury let this guy hang out for 3 years after this story. Something is not right, and it smells like Duke again.

J.D. says:

This…..I don’t get….it…..
An article making SENSE?! No way! Hat’s off to you, JJ. The media needs more people like you. I hope you get a good job when you get out of school.
-PSU student.

Mike T says:

The media in this country has turned into entertainment. Who cares about what’s true; ratings are what counts.

Joe went to his boss and to the guy that was in charge of the police…I guess he should have gone over their heads too.

Not a mention of the police who knew more than anyone and they knew it sooner, I guess that the police would never be corrupt or cover anything up.

If it ever comes out that Joe is completely innocent, there won’t be a word of responsibility on contrition from the media.

Remember that congressman from NY whose female aide disappeared. The media slaughtered that guy. Turns out he had nothing to do with it. All the “reporters” involved in the slaughter were completely silent.

I’m so proud of those PSU students who went after the “news” van. If everyone did that, this country would be a much better place.

TimB says:

The PA Attorney General released a statement saying she was concerned that Paterno was fired given that he was not charged and was a cooperating witness.

The media has had a feeding frenzy and posters have often assumed facts not in evidence.

There is no evidence Paterno knew that Sandusky fooled around with boys in showers before 2002.

Paterno and the two administrators McQueary talked to dispute that he told them Sandusky had anal sex with a boy.

McQueary had undermined his credibility with an email claiming he talked to police about the incident, but police say they have no record of him reporting it.

Unless the boy McQueary saw with Sandusky comes forward to corroborate his story, it seems doubtful they can convict on those charges,if the jury is objective and uses “reasonable doubt.”

Ed Winkel says:

Pollyanna would be proud of this column

Brad F. says:

“how did the Grand Jury know to ask McQueary anything in the first place?”

Kate, the investigation heard about a possible grad assistant witness from an anonymous PS sports blog. Imagine that. The blog post must have originated from information that McQueary told to others, or perhaps McQueary himself blogged it. The blog post didn’t go into detail but it was enough that the investigators wanted to ask questions to people who were grad assistants at the time. So they asked McQueary and he spilled the beans.

An elderly janitor saw something too. And judging from what the other janitors said, he nearly died upon seeing it. Imagine, to some people this would be sort of like witnessing a homicide. Sandusky knew the janitor saw something. So that night he came back driving his car through the parking lot multiple times without going in. The only reasons he might have done this would be to either just observe the janitors, or to observe then influence or strongarm them, or perhaps something more sinister, which only Sandusky knows.

So how did the cops even know to ask the janitors? Well that’s why it’s called an investigation. With this level and amount of crime, it would make sense to ask anyone who frequented the scene whether they saw anything. So it’s possible that they would have come upon McQueary anyway, without the help from the blog post.

We are! Ashamed! says:

Sorry jj,
I hate to rain on your parade. But your reasoning it is fatally flawed! There is a difference between moral, civil and criminal liability. We know enough details from the grand jury indictment to know that POPE JoePa if not criminally liable (the jury is still out on that!) is most likely civilly liable for not giving an accurate account of the rape to his superiors and certainly morally reprehensible for not demanding that Sandusky never step foot in his athletic building. He described a rape of a 10 year old boy as “something of a sexual nature”? Really jj? “Breathe in, breathe out”. I wonder how the little boy was breathing when McQueary herd the “slapping sounds” of sex? Slapping sounds indicates that the rape must have been pretty aggressive; you think he might have been bleeding? Oh I am sorry, by your journalistic ethos we can only characterize it as a naked 55 year old Sandusky showering and horsing around with a 10 year old boy, because that’s all he has admitted, we have to let the justice system work, the rape is only alleged, we shouldn’t ask any uncomfortable questions, breathe in breathe out, put the brakes on! Maybe it will go away. But never-the-less the victim must have been comforted by that “touching” (I know you‘re a softy!) moment of silence this past weekend, before the crowd went back to their normal chant of WE ARE! PENT STATE! and we love you JoePa! I know I am being unfair, JoePa didn’t know that his defensive coordinator was investigated by the University Police in 1998 for something of a sexual nature with another boy, even though shortly after that investigation, JoePa informed Sandusky that he would never be the head coach at Penn State and that he should retire early to take advantage of the retirement benefits. JoePa didn’t know. He is only the head coach. He wouldn’t know that his second in command was being investigated, there was no cover up, breathe In, breathe out, put on the brakes, more uncomfortable facts, don’t ask, maybe it will go away. Let the justice system work, wait that was 1998. Then 1999. Then 2002. Breathe in Breathe out. Put the Brakes on. Joe didn’t know! Put the Brakes on. Sandusky had an working office in JoePa’s athletic building until 2010! Jim Tressel was forced to resign because everybody was outraged that a player had sold a jersey to get a tattoo, but JoePa should have been allowed to continue coaching? Breathe in Breathe out, put the brakes on!!
Sorry jj, JoePa was MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE for not demanding this monster not only be banned from his beloved institution, but be prosecuted to the full extent of the law back in 2002 if not earlier. The Board of Trustees were fully justified in firing him. He brought dishonor to the institution and himself. The only thing the board of trustees did wrong was not cancel that sad display of desperation this past weekend. A moment of silence followed by proud chants of We Are! Pent State! does not honor the victims, but rather trivializes their suffering and pain, while only masking the reality that the fans should have been chanting WE ARE! ASHAMED!

Emily Z says:

Really, you got it all pin-pointed. Do you know what Joe Paterno stood for? He was the FIRST person any wrong-doer would hide their crimes to and the LAST Person any criminal or anyone wanting to hide a crime would tell. WHY the heck would you tell the most moral person in Pennsylvania about a crime that you’re trying to cover up?

Also, the Grand Jury report doesn’t say anything about the follow up. WHICH therefore means that the possibility that questions about the follow up weren’t asked! Joe couldn’t answer questions about, let’s just say, following up on his actions, if they weren’t asked. Sandusky is under investigation. Joe Paterno isn’t. GET THAT STRAIGHT!

Emily Z says:

and believe me, we are NOT ashamed. I’m still proud of my PSU degree. It’s a top notch university – especially for academics.

Brad F. says:

“… Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Mike Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier all knew that Sandusky raped a boy and then decided to protect someone who hadn’t been employed by the school for three years.”

Didn’t it occur to you that these people lied to protect the institution and themselves, not Sandusky! You fool. And at who’s expense – past and potentially future victims. Judging by the tone of your article it sounds like you might have done the same thing.

Joe Smithers says:

@Joe – agree with your last point. Perhaps the problem is in elevating our heroes to such a high pedestal that a human fall from grace becomes a precipitous drop off a cliff. Spiderman really only exists in fiction.

@Kate – according to the NY Times today, investigators were lucky to focus on McQueary based on a post in a Penn State fan forum. That suggests (1) it was indeed difficult to break through the silence, and (2) even in silence, rumors about someone seeing something inappropriate were floating around. Again, not proven facts, but neither of those implications reflect well on the parties involved.

Joe Smithers says:

@Kate – to clarify, since the 2 points seem contradictory – the implications undermine the potential defenses of the parties involved.

(1) The defense that there was no cover-up and all appropriate actions were taken – yet the authorities had to dig deep to find it, rather than have it voluntarily reported to them.

(2) The defense that the parties involved didn’t really know what was (allegedly) happening, it was just innocent horsing around – yet rumors of something “ugly” made it to the Internet, and according to investigators, “there were a number of college coaches that had heard the rumors. If all these people knew about it, how could Sandusky’s superiors not know?”

Lance, class of 1989 says:

On behalf of myself and many Penn State alumni, I want to thank you for what you wrote.

As we struggle to put our feeling into words against so many who think ALL Penn Staters must be punished, it’s a comfort to know that some people are still using their brain. You have put what we feel into words for us.

We can never change what happened, or assuage the pain of the victims, but your rational words have helped heal.

Thank you again

Kate says:

Just a thought I had today….if it was a “cover-up,” and only those named knew about it, how did the Grand Jury know to ask McQueary anything in the first place? Wouldnt there have to be some sort of report or record indicating that McQueary knew something and should be questioned?

Jason says:

@ Joe. Absolutely yes, (sadly). And no (just ask Spiderman.) But to pound the desk and claim that you would have done the most perfect thing is self-deception and naive.

@Billy. I am not so sure that you would have. With hindsight, and with no actual real threat causing trauma in your brain, you are able to think through this situation and come to a conclusion that almost all 7 billion humans would also come to. But once you add the very real visual trauma of child rape, plus the fact that the rapist was an extremely respected coworker, or possibly even a sports hero to you at the time, and maybe even inferred pressure from the workplace culture as to the future of your career and you family’s stability, your brain will start shitting the bed because the very simple moral ideal just became very traumatic and difficult. This sort of thing happens all of the time and if you think you would act in the best possible way, while you might be right, it’s just as likely as you would react improperly. And until you are in that situation, which will hopefully never happen, the science says that you cannot possibly make such assertions. Just look up the “Trolly Problem” on Wikipedia. Morals are fuzzy and situational and prone to our own psychological shortcomings.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be outraged. I think we should all be outraged. But we also must not claim superiority. We must use terrible stories like this to remind ourselves that none of us are morally super-human. And maybe that’s enough to ground us if we ever do experience such a horrible trauma.

Joe Smithers says:

@Jason – Isn’t it possible for an action to be both humanly common and morally wrong? And is it inappropriate for society to hold those who have greater power to a higher standard?

Billy says:

If my assistant told me Sandusky buttfucked a 10 year old in my showers, I would have called the police. Simple really. Your point of view is sad.

Jason says:

Why, what is turning out to be 10s of people, didn’t report this to the police is a going to be an interesting study in psychology. Sure, there may have been a cover up at the very top levels and we should wait for the evidence before accusing anyone of that, but… the janitorial staff… I somehow doubt they were involved with a cover up if indeed one really did happen…. but who knows.

Regardless, the failure to report this stuff is going to come down to bystander effect, motivated blindness, normalcy bias, classic self-deception, and a host of other psychological problems that we all suffer from. A study of this will really say is that we, as humans, don’t deal well with extreme, revolting situations very well.

And sadly, the commentators who have all pounded the desk while talking about their own moral superiority (quite easy to do in hindsight) are delusional because, luckily, they have not had to be in the situations they claim they would act properly in, and they are not aware of their own psychological limitations. As a friend said, “If as many people said they would have ‘done the right thing’, I doubt child abuse would even exist anymore.” These people do believe their own words, but, I don’t think we should.

We should all take this as a learning experience that we are probably not all as idealistic as we think we are.

Joe Smithers says:

Saw your editorial on a link-through by Christine Flowers @ Philadelphia Inquirer (philly.com), titled “A Rational Perspective from the West Coast”

Three questions:
1. Who really has the power in this situation – the authorities and the grand jury as you suggest, or Joe Paterno and Penn State University?

2. Why did it take almost a decade for the 2002 incident to come to the attention of the authorities and investigators?

3. Is there a moral difference between not seeing something v. choosing not to look?

Leslie says:

Thank you, THANK YOU for writing this article. Its sums up exactly how I’m feeling. I am a Penn Stater, and this whole mess has been so difficult to process. What has been so mind-boggling is the seeming absence of ANY rational thought. I mean, maybe they all did all the things they are being accused of, maybe they didn’t, but we don’t even remotely have all the facts yet. It feels like watching a lynch mob in action. Thank you for being willing to voice this (minority) opinion. It gives me hope for the future of journalism!

Manny Sidhu says:

Great article. Your points are spot on. I am confused that you are basically the only one writing anything like this. Everyone else seems scared to take your position. The grand jury report is a legal document, the intent of which is to incriminate Sandusky, thus we do not have enough information on what morally was done.

Brian B. says:

I would also add that A. Many people taking the grand jury report as gospel don’t understand the difference between a grand jury proceeding and a jury trial, and B. These same people are somehow (with a burning, delusional sense of moral superiority) equating “let’s wait until we’ve learned all the facts” with “let’s all support child molestation”. The convenient inflammatory polarization and absence of rational thought is min-boggling.

Brian B. says:

I’m giving you a write-in vote for Mayor of Awesomeville. There’s also a great editorial in yesterday’s New York Times titled Let’s All Feel Superior that raises some valid points (and backs them up with some good data)

eric doit says:


I must take issue with your two essential arguments. You say: “The fact is, I don’t know what happened in 2002. You don’t know what happened in 2002. And the media does not know what happened in 2002 — we should stop pretending like we do.”

I say that we do know what the Grand Jury thought they knew after a lengthy investigation with multiple witnesses into many crimes that left an appalling trail of victims. Read the indictment. That is enough for reasonable people to agree that anyone closely connected to the sordid coverup of these acts had to be dismissed. Public trust had to be restored.

You say, “Has the Duke Lacrosse scandal taught the media nothing? Has it taught our country nothing?”

I say apples and oranges. With the infamous Duke case, you had a single witness, who quickly proved unreliable, combined with an ambitious DA who thought he could ride this case to re-election and had his own rush to judgment for which he was later disbarred. There’s no comparison with the two-year investigation the governor of Pennsylvania began when he was the state attorney general and which has heard from many witnesses testifying about event over 15 years.

Your two main arguments don’t hold water.

Jay V says:

How about Michael Jackson then? Multiple alleged victims, eye-witness testimony, etc., etc., etc. All you have to do is wait for the trial evidence to come out… but to many people have too many agendas and/or long-standing biases to let that happen.

Emily Z says:


JJ’s arguments do hold water. It isn’t like comparing apples to oranges. It’s about people running their mouths when they shouldn’t – before they know the facts.

As for Joe, and the rest of the men involved (though I believe Sandusky doesn’t have a shot), the media SLAMMED them without even the thought of what was right or wrong. I could hear a quote come from Joe’s mouth and the next thing I know, it’s written ten different ways for ten different newspapers. How is that right?

A good friend of mine is an associate producer for a sports show. After Matt Millen spoke on ESPN during his interview, she got an earful from me.

There is no reason to prosecute people before the court does. As a matter of fact – media, the press, and everyone casting stones is more morally wrong than Joe Paterno could have ever been. Think about it.

JJ, good article. I like that you added some needed perspective to this. Maybe Joe did know, but maybe he didn’t. I’m hoping he didn’t. But time will tell, and I can’t wait until Joe gets his apologies.

Thank you for writing this. :)

Daniel C. says:

Superb, cogent reasoning. The patience you recommend is well advised, especially as McQueary is already contradicting his grand jury testimony. It was really a sociological marvel how attitudes changed from Saturday to Wednesday on the exact same set of facts – just a few lines from a grand jury report.

Moissy says:

I have read almost everything available on the allegations–everything from the grand jury report to the NY Times and ESPN to the small local media. This is by far one of the most reasoned pieces I have read in days. Keep up the great writing. You definitely have a future in journalism (and you’ll still be able to own a home also, have no fear)! (I’m a homeowning writer also.) Great job.

SteveJ says:


Your still young yet. Rational productive articles with objective headlines don’t cut it. If your going to get ahead in journalism you need base inflammatory headlines and statements that get people bouncing up and down for no reason whatsoever.

That’s where the money is, and if you want own a home some day you’ll wise up.

Danielle ODonohue says:

Thank you, this provides great perspective.

Bill Farrell says:

Outstanding editorial. Well thought out and superbly presented.
Great to see Flowers comments. They ring true.
Well done!

G says:

Very informative article JJ. I didn’t know a whole lot about this scandal and now I feel more informed. Thanks.

Jim Keven says:

Thanks JJ….needed perspective. Good journalism is so important in letting us see into situations that need our attention and our care. And likewise, our sense of seeing justice served also needs the same attention and care. The good news is that this case has come to the surface to be resolved…and all should have, and will have, their day in court.

Austin Coury says:

Great article J.J.- I totally agree with what you’re saying!