It may sound like a cliché to say this now, but the saga of Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and Penn State has done more than even upend a decades-long football tradition fans hoped to believe in for generations.
It’s also exposed both the best and worst in sports journalism in one awful, ugly scandal.
Indeed, “scandal” seems too small a word to describe the final picture outlined in the report prepared by the law firm led by ex-FBI director Louis Freeh for Penn State’s Board of Trustees, examining the reaction of university officials to investigations back in 1998 and 2001 alleging Paterno aide Sandusky may have molested children on the campus.
“In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university…repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the University’s Board of Trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large,” read the report, assembled after Freeh’s group conducted 430 interviews, sifted 3.5-million pieces of electronic data and established a toll-free hotline with dedicated email address for tips.
“The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Council is the total and consistent disregard by the most seniors leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare or Sandusky’s child victims,” the report concluded.
But what may also be most disheartening, is that media outlets didn’t get wind of the investigations against Sandusky until March 2011, when crime reporter Sara Ganim would uncork a story in Harrisburg, Pa’s Patriot-News revealing a grand jury had spent 18 months looking into allegations Sandusky assaulted a boy at a school where he volunteered in 2009.
Ganim would later win a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the Sandusky story, which included a tough look at why the investigations against Sandusky took two years to produce an arrest and heart-rending interviews with those close to the young boys, now young men, who were assaulted.
But back in March 2011, Ganim’s story – which centered on an incident that didn’t take place at Penn State and lacked some of the explicit, shocking details of later allegations against Sandusky – didn’t draw much national media attention or scrutiny from Penn State’s board.
According to the Freeh group’s report, Penn State’s Board of Trustees didn’t discuss the grand jury against Sandusky until May 12, 2011 and wouldn’t broach the subject again in official meetings until Sandusky was arrested and top university officials were indicted for their inaction.
This was when the story exploded nationally. Less than two weeks later, NBC sports anchor Bob Costas nailed the TV interview which may have sealed Sandusky’s fate, exposing that even after an arrest and imminent trial, the former coach seemed ambivalent about denying the charges.
But still some in the news media failed to dig out the full extent of the story, perhaps because the reality was so much more horrifying that the public images of the officials involved.
Joe Posnanski, a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated and admitted Paterno fan, was working on a book planned as a tribute to Paterno’s life and career, to be written as a triumphant journey according to the New York Times.
Posnanski took criticism in the early weeks after Sandusky’s arrest and after Paterno’s death in January for making comment which seemed to defend the coach and his legacy. His Jan. 30 story on Paterno’s last weeks before succumbing to lung cancer noted he was not broken by the scandal and “refused to be bitter or sad about the way it all ended.”
In speaking to Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins days before his death, Paterno left her with the impression he was still struggling the comprehend the scandal and that “nobody knew about” the police investigation into allegations of molestation against Sandusky in 1998.
But the Freeh Report says Paterno followed that 1998 investigation closely and suggests he persuaded university officials not to notify state authorities in 2001, when informed someone saw Sandusky having sex with a 10-year-old boy in the football building’s shower.
Eventually, Jenkins wrote last week that “Joe Paterno was a liar,” concluding that he misled her in his final days on earth in the same way he misled a grand jury and the general public about the extent of his knowledge and involvement with the Sandusky investigations.
I think both Jenkins and Posnanski were led astray by the same desire which led so many at Penn State to invest so much devotion and admiration in the man called JoePa – hero worship. Everyone wants to believe a coach can achieve what Paterno did by sticking to strong values and working hard.
But there was more to that story, and I’m still hopeful the jarring evidence of the Freeh Report will lead Posnanski and others to sort through Paterno’s now-tarnished, legacy and salvage some journalistic truth from this awful mess.
Because, in the end, a journalist’s greatest responsibility isn’t passing along touching stories of heroism. It’s asking the tough questions no one else dares consider, simply because the public deserves the truth.
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.