#Hot Corner

Bill James and Joe Paterno

I didn't expect to ever write anything about Joe Paterno. For any number of reasons. I just never figured I had, or would have, anything to add to the discussion.

But Bill James works for the Boston Red Sox. Recently, in a couple of different places, Bill James expressed an opinion about Joe Paterno. Shortly, a Boston radio personality demanded that the Red Sox fire Bill James. Also, the Internets weren't thrilled with Bill James. Because if anybody does outrage better than radio personalities, it's the Internets.

As near as I can tell, it started in a relatively small place: Bill James Online, where Bill often answers questions posed by readers.

Independent report on Penn State scandal: "The evidence shows that Mr. Paterno was made aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, followed it closely, but failed to take any action, even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno's."
Asked by: Bruce
Answered: 7/13/2012

The Freeh reports states quite explicitly and at least six times (a) that the 1998 incident did NOT involve any criminal conduct -- on the part of Sandusky or anyone else -- and (b) that Paterno had forced the resignation of Sandusky before the 1998 incident occurred.

In any case, what EXACTLY is it that Paterno should have done? Fire him again? It is preposterous to argue, in my view, that PATERNO should have taken action after all of the people who were legally charged to take action had thoroughly examined the case and decided that no action was appropriate.

The 1998 incident was perceived AT THE TIME to involve no criminal conduct. The May 3, 1998 incident was very, very, very thoroughly investigated by at least four different agencies (University police, state police, and two different child welfare agencies), all four of which issued written reports stating that no criminal event had occurred. In retrospect, since the actions were part of a pattern of criminal conduct, it may be said that they were criminal conduct in and of themselves, but no one saw that at the time.

Now, I don't want to get too deeply into the specifics of this thing, because this is Baseball Nation. But before sitting down to write this thing that is probably going to run way too long, I did read the Freeh Report.*

* Well, I read the parts that mentioned Joe Paterno, and I sort of skimmed the rest. It's long, and huge chunks are really boring.

Now, I'm going to parse Bill's comments because I don't get the impression that anyone else really has.

That last paragraph is absolutely true. The May 1998 incident -- and I'm going to avoid any details because they're now a matter of public record -- really was fully investigated by a variety of agencies, with no charges filed.

Bill's first two paragraphs are a bit more problematic. For one thing, the record does not show that Paterno had forced Sandusky's resignation before the 1998 incident. There was, in fact, a memo in which Paterno offered to employ Sandusky as an assistant coach for as long as he (Paterno) remained head coach. However, Paterno had also informed Sandusky that he (Sandusky) would never get the top job, and Sandusky began exploring exit scenarios soon afterward.

Now, there's something that I should mention before we go any farther ... As you probably know, Joe Posnanski has written a book about Joe Paterno. Posnanski essentially became a part-time resident of State College before the Sandusky scandal hit the front pages; the idea was to follow Paterno around for a year or so, and write something that every college-football fan would want to read, or buy for his father; in fact, the book was supposed to be published just in time for Father's Day ... next year.

But then everything changed. The book's going to be published next month. Because, you know. The publishing business is designed to make money (if not much).

Joe Posnanski and Bill James know each other. I can't say they're friends, because that word means different things to different people. But I've been to lunch with Joe and Bill, and they're certainly friendly. They're both friendly to me, too. So please consider all of these friendly relationships while you're reading this. I cannot claim to be an objective observer. I'm giving it my best shot, though.

I mentioned that because I'm supposed to. But also because Bill, as an accomplished author who is friendly with Joe Posnanski, might have read the manuscript of Joe's book, and thus have a different take on some things.*

* Okay, the truth is that I'm pretty sure that Bill, during the lunch I mentioned, did say something about having read Joe's manuscript. But that's about as far as it went. Who could know this would turn into a thing?

For example, when Bill writes that Paterno fired Sandusky, he's either reading the Freeh Report incorrectly or he read something in Joe's book that suggests Paterno did actually force Sandusky out of coaching.

Does it sound like I'm defending Bill? I know, it does. But what I'm really doing is raising the possibility that we will, when Posnanski's book is published, perhaps look at some of these events in a somewhat different way than what we've read so far. And that Bill, having perhaps read the book already, is already there.

Or not.

Anyway, Bill's comments on Bill James Online seems to have caught someone's eye at ESPN Radio, and shortly Bill was a guest on Doug Gottlieb's show. Where, as you might guess, a great many more people were exposed to Bill's take on Paterno's role in Sandusky's criminal acts. Here's how Bill started:

I wish that ... Mr. Freeh had been more specific in saying what was done that shouldn't have been, or what should have been done that wasn't done. I think that would have been more helpful. But in general I think it's an honest and solid work.

A moment later, Gottlieb asks if it's not fair to blame Joe Paterno for not being "alarmed" by the 2001 incident enough to alert the police. To which Bill responded:

It's very hard, in fact I think it's impossible, to explain why Paterno should have been the person to go to the police. Paterno didn't see anything. Paterno was not the reporting authority. Sandusky did not work for Paterno. Paterno had no supervised authority over Sandusky. It's extremely difficult to explain why it was Paterno's responsibility to go to the police. He knew less about it than everybody else there.

Gottlieb responds by saying, "No one is bigger at State College than Joe Paterno."

Bill:

False. Absolutely false. That's the key thing. You're saying everything revolves around him. It's total nonsense. He had very few allies. He was isolated, and he was not nearly as powerful as people imagine him to have been. And he had poor sources.

None of that's in the Freeh Report, leaving me to guess it's instead in Joe Posnanski's manuscript.

There's much more to the interview, but after transcribing most of it I realized that's not really my job. It's there if you want to listen to it. Essentially, Gottlieb argues that the Freeh Report says Paterno encouraged a cover-up of Sandusky's activities, and Bill argues that it doesn't.

Bill also blames the media for creating a "smokescreen" behind which Sandusky was able to operate. Frankly, I don't really buy that.

Near the end of the interview, there's this unfortunate exchange:

Gottlieb: Have you ever showered with a boy?

James: No.

Gottlieb: Do you know anyone who's showered with a boy they were not related to, was not their young son.

James: Yes, that was actually quite common in the town where I grew up. And it was quite common in most of America 40 years ago.

Gottlieb: I didn't say 40 years ago. This is 2001.

James: Right. But you asked me if I knew anyone.

This has been used by small-minded people to indict Bill ... See, the guy's creepy. Or he's lying. Or he's utterly disconnected. Or maybe all three!

Funny thing was, this was exactly the response I would have expected from Bill, because it's the utterly honest response. Of course there was a time when men and boys routinely showered together, just as there was a time when heterosexual men routinely slept together. Sometimes honesty doesn't play so well, though.

Anyway, that was followed by this:

Gottlieb: We read different things into the report. I can only tell you that if you go back and you read the report, when Tim Curley and Schultz were going to go to the authorities, they said, "After speaking with Joe, we decided a different course of action, and to keep it in house." They were going to go to the cops, and he talked them out of it. Period. By most people's account.

James: That is one of 1,742 possible interpretations of that sequence of events.

Did Paterno intervene on Sandusky's behalf? The Freeh Report offers scant evidence that he did, or rather there is scant evidence that Paterno pressured anyone to keep Sandusky out of jail.

Should Paterno have done something to stop Sandusky?

Sure. So should McQueary, who saw Sundusky abusing a child. So should the two Penn State janitors who saw Sandusky abusing a child. None of those men have been seriously criticized, presumably because they were afraid of maybe losing their jobs ... Which sort of ignores the possibility that "maybe losing your job" is a lousy excuse for not reporting the sexual abuse of a child that you've personally witnessed.

Paterno's bosses at Penn State should have done something, too.

Everyone assumes that all of these men -- Paterno's bosses, and Paterno himself -- were evil, or at least acted evilly in this case, which means they acted evilly over the course of 10 years, or 13 if you start the clock in 1998.

That's not the way these things work, usually. There was never a moment when four men sat around a table and cackled with glee as they plotted to facilitate a known child molester. That meeting didn't happen. The truth is far more banal than that. They were instead a few moderately powerful men, weighing competing interests and making some truly unfortunate decisions along the way.

In 1998, they went by the book and Sandusky was cleared of wrongdoing by a variety of official entities. In 2001, they failed to connect the dots and they failed to separate Sandusky from the University and they failed to report him to the authorities. They blew it. Big time.

Bill's point, I think, is that ... Wait. I shouldn't make Bill's point for him. I would probably make the wrong one. So you can decide that for yourself. My point is that a great number of people bear some responsibility for Jerry Sandusky's crimes, and it's not clear that Joe Paterno's at the top of the list.

A long time ago, Bill James wrote somewhere that losing teams tend to focus their frustrations on their best-known players. When you think Penn State, you think Joe Paterno. So it's natural for everyone to focus their frustrations with Penn State on Paterno. That doesn't mean it's appropriate.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Paterno probably deserves some of it. If you take a poll of the public -- or just of Our Nation's Radio Hosts -- you'll probably find that Paterno deserves at least 50 percent of the blame that doesn't go directly to Jerry Sandusky.

I think it's lower than 50 percent. Maybe it's 5 percent. Maybe it's 45 percent. Either way, the attempts to turn Joe Paterno into some sort of uncaring monster seem to me unfair and misguided.

And the same goes for Bill James. He probably interprets some elements of the Freeh Report differently than you might. Instead of calling for his firing, if not his head, maybe we should applaud Bill for having the courage to ask questions that nobody else seems interested in asking.

Bill might be wrong about everything. But without the questions, how would we know who's right?

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