Monday, November 14, 2011

Penn State tragedy -- I didn't get it right last week

One week ago when I wrote my first (of two) columns - here and here - on Joe Paterno and the tragedy at Penn State quite a few people—including my wife—felt that I didn’t put enough emphasis on what is by far the most tragic aspect of the whole debacle, which is what happened to at least eight young boys and, in all likelihood, far more than that.

I plead guilty—with an explanation.

Some people have speculated that I was just looking at it from the jock perspective, wondering what this would do to Paterno and Penn State rather than focusing more on the victims. Actually, that’s not true. I made a cardinal error: I assumed it was a given that the most tragic aspect of what was going on was what had been done to the boys and the fact that it could have been stopped years ago and wasn’t.

You know the old cliché about what happens when you assume.

That was mistake number one. Mistake number two—now that I have the benefit of seven days hindsight—was clearly my bias towards Paterno. Or, more specifically, my inability to wrestle to the ground the notion that someone I had put on a pedestal for so long could have fallen and crashed from that pedestal so hard.

My bias here wasn’t personal as it might have been with any number of basketball coaches or a small handful of football coaches—specifically those I’ve worked with on book projects and come to know well. I’ve met Paterno, interviewed Paterno, but can hardly claim to know him.

But I’ve admired him and his program since I was a kid. Growing up in New York City there were three college football teams I followed with passion: Columbia, Army and Penn State. I always enjoyed Paterno’s acerbic wit and his insistence that his players go to class and graduate and learn about more than football. I also liked the fact that everyone around Penn State always called him, ‘Joe,’ in a world where most coaches wear the title of ‘Coach,’ as if it was inherited at birth.

As far back as 1999 I wanted to do a book on Paterno. Right around the time that Jerry Sandusky was ‘retiring,’ I wrote Paterno a letter asking him for an audience so I could try to convince him to grant me access that fall to do a book. My request in the letter was simple: Don’t say no, just say you’ll listen. I honestly believed if I could get in the room with him and explain to him how little time I would actually need with him once the season started that I would have a shot.

I never got the chance. I still have the letter he wrote to me in response. It wasn’t a two-line blow-off, it took up an entire page. It was still a blow-off, but it was one that made me feel not totally rejected. He explained the timing of my request was bad because he was launching several non-football projects. He knew my work, respected my work but this wasn’t the right time. The added touch was a handwritten sentence at the bottom of the page: “Really enjoy listening to you on NPR.”

I knew Paterno was a Republican. But he listened to NPR. That was impressive too.

I was, needless to say, disappointed. Paterno was going to turn 73 at the end of that season and I thought the ’99 team might be his last chance to make a run at a national championship. Actually a loss to Minnesota after an 8-0 start began a five year spiral that climaxed when President Graham Spanier went to Paterno’s house to suggest he retire and apparently got thrown out of the house.

Good for Joe I thought back then. If anyone deserved to plan his own exit it was Paterno.

As I’ve written here before I took another swipe at getting in to see Paterno three years ago. Thanks to my friend Malcolm Moran who now teaches at Penn State (and wrote a wonderful piece in the Sunday New York Times on the mood up there on Saturday) I had lunch with a marketing guy named Guido D’Elia who had become very close to Paterno and had become his un-official gatekeeper.

D’Elia was, to put it politely, dismissive of the idea and of me. Paterno wasn’t ready to do legacy stuff he explained, even at 82. When I told him that I hoped he’d be ready soon and I’d like to have the chance to talk to him sooner rather than later about it, D’Elia said, “We’ll put you on the list.”

(I did a google search this morning to see if D’Elia’s name has surfaced at all in the last week. I found nothing. I find that strange).

The day wasn’t a complete loss though. Malcolm had arranged for he and I to do a two-man ‘forum,’ that night discussing journalism and college athletics. One of the people who showed up was Jay Paterno. Malcolm introduced us and we chatted for a few minutes. No doubt strictly to be courteous, Jay said, “Hey, if I can ever be of any help to you, here’s my contact info.”

He handed me his card. In one of the great upsets of the last 50 years I somehow didn’t lose it. I have lost more important phone numbers than perhaps anyone in history. Last year, after Penn State’s season was over, I dug out the card and contacted Jay. I told him I was looking for help and asked if we could have lunch—which we did.

I liked him instantly. He was smart, funny and totally un-impressed with himself. He was (is) also a Democrat who had worked for President Obama in ’08. Naturally I liked that too. I asked Jay to do one thing for me: Get me in to see his father. He said he would talk to him as soon as he came back from vacation.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps fortunately) unbeknownst to Jay, his father was already making a book deal with Joe Posnanski. I could hardly blame him for choosing Joe who he knew a lot better than me and who is very damn good. My guess was that my pal Guido was behind that deal but I honestly don’t know.

So that’s the background. I’ve been a Paterno fan for a long time and thought he’d make a fascinating book subject. Clearly I was right about that but not for the reasons I thought. I think I may have been in a little bit of denial a week ago about Paterno’s culpability. And, I’ll also admit that, then—as now—I can’t help but think about Jay Paterno.

He’s gone from having a bright future in coaching or politics (he was being encouraged by a number of important Democrats to run for Congress next year if his dad retired) to a future that is now completely murky. If feeling badly about that makes me a bad guy, so be it.

I hate this story in every possible way. I hate it first and foremost for those kids and their families who have been to hell and back and yet their journey’s far from over. I hate it on a much different level for The Penn State players and for all the Penn State people who honestly believed their program and their coach WERE different from the other big time programs. As I said this morning in The Post, I talked to a long-time coach last week, not someone close to Paterno at all and he said this: “If you ask me the list of all the big-time coaches I am absolutely certain don’t cheat here it is: Joe Paterno.”

Of course this went way beyond cheating. It is, without doubt, the worst thing that has ever happened in college athletics. That’s not to diminish the death of Len Bias 25 years ago or the murder of Patrick Dennehy eight years ago or the death of any college athlete. This involved innocent children being abused repeatedly and it is a story that is going to go on and on for years to come.

I didn’t get it right last week. I’m not sure I’ll ever get it right. In fact, I’m not sure there IS a right here. Just an awful lot of wrongs.

My newest book, to be published Dec. 5th, is now available for pre-order: One on One-- Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game 


Anonymous said...

Great post, John. I have posted negative reactions to your writing on here in the past when I felt you went overboard (who, you overboard?) but this was dead-on. In lots of casual to serious conversations last week as the story developed, we all wanted to give Paterno the benefit of the doubt. Now we know he did not deserve that benefit, which is a real shame. That doesn't mean it wasn't incredibly easy to walk around last week thinking, "Surely not this guy." Well written post.

Tim said...

I agree with anonymous - great insight into your thoughts throughout the process. And I'm glad even the great John Feinstein can realize and admit his perception was off from time time time. It makes everything you write be seen in better context.

Anonymous said...

"I think I may have been in a little bit of denial about JP's culpability "
?????? Come on Man!!!!! You and everyone else who buys into this college sports BS about teaching young men about being stand-up people who do the right thing....JoePa and his "it's for the kids" crappola makes me sick to my stomach. The only question you have to ask is "if that was his 10 yr old grandson in the shower with Sandusky do you think he would just make a phone call that passes responsibility on up the line. The bottom line is $$ and personal gain.
Idiot kids rioting because their favorite FB coach got fired says it all.

Anonymous said...

Its amazing the range of emotions that the case caused on media last week. I thought you guys were all going to kill each other -- I assume you aren't on twitter, but the pack mentality was deafening.

The Tired Hack said...

Hey John. I guess this means I'm the last person in America who thinks the reaction to Paterno's act of omission is way over the top, especially considering the good he has done in moving a nowhere school in nowhere Pennsylvania into the upper reaches of the nation's education and his insistence on doing things the right way. Should he have done more in this instance? Even he acknowledges so. But it's not like he did nothing -- he provided a second-hand report to higher ups, including to the man who maintained oversight over campus police. There is no evidence he sought to engage in a cover-up or attempt to fend off an investigation, only that he handed the ball off to superiors regarding an incident involving a friend of some 30 years. Frankly, if that makes him a bad guy, if I was faced with the same situation, I could very well be a bad guy too. Now they've fired him and removed his name from the Big 10 trophy. I hope everybody is happy now so the venom can be directed elsewhere. I enjoy your work.

Anonymous said...

WHAT?!?!?! John Feinstein admitted he was wrong?!? What is the world coming to? Just joking..thanks for the post John. I usually get your columns, but this was one of the few times when you lost me.

Chuck B '92 said...

Enjoyed the Georgetown wrap-up, and I thought your recent blog piece here and in the Washington Post were really good reading about a story that has seen its share of bad sportswriting over the last few weeks. It's so true that there are an "awful lot of wrongs, and no right's" when it comes to this.

I still think they should have forfeited the game this weekend, postponed it, or perhaps donated the gate to the victims of sexual abuse.

Anonymous said...


In the future, when you weigh in here or in the WP with opinions on news stories, etc., please consider disclosing when you have entered into or attempted to enter into business agreements with coaches, universities or teams in question.

I know you have done so in the case of Army and Navy stories.

You bending over backwards to be fair to Joe Paterno makes a good bit more sense when we know that you were actively courting a business relationship -- most recently through his son -- and clearly had not given up despite Paterno's early attempts to throw you off the scent.

In light of the thorough recent disclosure, your comments are a good bit more understandable.

(Parenthetically, here's a parlor game for you. Imagine if Bob Woodward had been in the book business BEFORE Watergate. Watergate would have been but a footnote and Woodward would have written that the conspiracy to cover up a simple wiretap operation might damage the legacy of an otherwise outstanding Republican president and a visionary in foreign affairs.)

Otherwise, keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Posnanski's column about JoPa was pathetic. Even more of an apologists for the wise old man than your original columns.

Thanks for finally coming clean and providing a small glimpse at the incredible bias that exists at all level of college sports.

PeteWill said...

John, The one thing that I haven't read anywhere but I think is probably the case is this: Joe Paterno will spend the rest of his life dealing with his failure in handling this tragic incident. My guess is that he will be gone before the litigation process is concluded. That is a sad story.

RThomas said...

For he and I!?