Home / General / A Plea To Bill James: Please Stop Writing Nonsense About Joe Paterno*

A Plea To Bill James: Please Stop Writing Nonsense About Joe Paterno*


For whatever reason, the great Bill James has from the beginning of the Sandusky case going public been an apologist for Joe Paterno and his role in covering up the crimes of the serial child rapist who was his former defensive coordinator. Since many of its assertions have been clearly disproven by the Freeh report there’s probably not much point in a length dissection of his prior longform defense of Paterno, although I think you can see a lot of the key problems with his arguments: the apparent belief that decisions not to indict are affirmative proof of innocence, the confusing of de jure and de facto authority, what journalists and state authorities couldn’t find because of the coverup Paterno participated being used to exonerate Paterno, the strange idea that if an eyewitness account of sexually assaulting a child doesn’t specifically mention anal rape we can excuse the failure of a powerful man to report the incident to proper state authorities.

I was hoping that the Freeh report would lead him to admit that he was wrong about Paterno, but alas this didn’t happen. His first line of defense was to point out that that Sandusky was exonerated by legal authorities in 1998 so it’s not clear what Paterno could have done to stop him at that time, which (apart from the fact that Paterno later perjured himself on this subject) is narrowly true but for the reasons cited by Craig Calcaterra is also beside the point. Before blogging about it, I thought I would ask him to address the real point — that it makes his inaction in 2002 look even worse. He answered my question, but I can’t say that his answer was adequate:

I don’t believe anybody is saying that there’s something more Paterno could have done *in 1998*. The point is that the knowledge of the 1998 allegations made Paterno’s conduct in 2002 — not only failing to report credible accusations of rape against Sandusky to the appropriate state authorities, but intervening after a decision had been made by other administrators to report Sandusky, after which the allegations were not reported — particularly indefensible.
Asked by: slemieux99
Answered: 7/13/2012

[James]:So far as I am aware, you are the first and only person to allege that Paterno intervened in a decision that had been made to report Sandusky. I will note that the word “intervene” appears only once in the Freeh report, which is in quoting the University President as saying that had he suspected that Sandusky was abusing children, he would have been the first to intervene.

Is James saying that the self-serving comments of Graham Spanier should be taken seriously? Anyway, leaving aside the silly point about the word “intervene” not being used to describe Paterno’s 2002 actions in the report, not only am I confident that I am not alone in interpreting what happened in 2002 as an intervention by Paterno, I think almost everyone will agree with me that it’s the only reasonable interpretation. Let’s look at the relevant passage of the Freeh report, the email sent by Curley after Curley and Schultz had agreed to report Sandusky to state authorities:

“After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday – I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps.”

This was followed, of course, by Spanier agreeing that this was the “humane” solution.

So the chain of events is as follows: Curley and Schultz agree to do the right thing; Curley speaks to Paterno; and then Curley, Schultz, Spanier, and Paterno all agree to do nothing about Sandusky, a serial rapist heading a charity for at-risk boys, even though we know that they had known about the previous charges against Sandusky. And while we do not know to an absolute certainty that Paterno intervened and persuaded Curley not to go to the state, to conclude otherwise you’d have to believe that Curley and Schultz changed their minds over the objections of the most powerful person on the campus. James’s apparent alternative explanation doesn’t even rise to the level of “implausibility.”

But let’s assume arguendo that my interpretation of these events, despite being the only remotely plausible one, is wrong. We still know that 1)Paterno knew that there was a credible accusation that Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted a child, 2)he knew his superiors had decided to do nothing about it and 3)despite the fact that he was aware of earlier accusations against Sandusky 4)did absolutely nothing about it, with the direct (and very foreseeable) consequence that Sandusky continited to rape young boys. Even in the most charitable interpretation of the facts, in other words, there is no possible defense of Paterno’s behavior, and James is still failing to address this.

*Title, as many will remember, a reference to this. I hope this doesn’t mean that James’s friend Joe Posnanski is still planning to release a quasi-hagiography of Paterno.

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  • Richard

    On any subject other than baseball statistics, Bill James has been and is an embarassment. His repeated claims that Pete Rose did not bet on baseball, which he continued to make until Rose finally confessed, were nonsensical. And his most recent book on famous criminal cases is laughably bad. His response to you is even worse.

    • elm

      I was also thinking of the Pete Rose defense when I read this. It seems that James has this massive blind spot for larger-than-life figures he respects and he becomes unable to use his analytical powers to address their actions and his own defense of them.

      I don’t know if he’s being willfully obtuse or if he is just obtuse, but how he can’t see the relevance of finding out Paterno knew about the 1998 incident in 2002 is just odd.

      • John F

        That’s not quite it- if you read the Abstracts while Rose was playing and managing* he did no like or respect Rose- which makes his later defense even odder than it was.

        • elm

          I stand corrected. It makes even less sense, now. Contrarianism when it comes to Rose I can understand. Contrarianism when it comes to child rape? WTF? You’d have to be a moral monster to engage in that.

      • Scott Lemieux

        One minor note is that whatever motivated James’s attacks on the Dowd Report, it wasn’t affection for Rose; he never liked Rose and used to write funny stuff about the media’s ridiculous crush on him. I think it was just contrarianism.

        • Scott Lemieux

          John beat me to it!

        • Richard

          I think its contrarianism. But he wont give it up even when the facts prove him dead wrong.

          • Anon21

            I can’t claim to have made a deep study of his work, but I have been reading his “Hey Bill” column for the last year or so. He has a really deep and perverse contrarian streak; quite possibly it comes out of his great success at being contrarian in his early career. At times like this, it just makes him look like a fool.

    • Add to that his global warming skepticism, also published on his website. It seems not to occur to James that what made him great was not being contrarian–it was being contrarian and backing it up with data.

      • Halloween Jack

        Sounds like he might be turning into Malcolm Gladwell.

    • Avattoir

      Agreed and agreed.

      Because I’d read for many years everything I could find by James, I indulged him on the evidence-Rose-gambled-on-MLB thing. Because he’d challenged so many shibboleths so successfully and artfully over those years, I thought, it must be my fault I don’t get what he’s arguing, I’m missing something. When he wouldn’t — or couldn’t — stop, I dedicated an entire rainy day in close reading of everything I could find from James on this, and on the investigation and report more broadly, to see if I could draft an indictment and build a case strong enough, not just to resist dismissal, but to force Rose to answer. Then, I envisioned switching roles to ‘defend’ Rose at that point – t see how tough would that case be to answer.

      All but the last ended up much easier than I’d expected – turned out, without James’ idiosyncratic and eccentric reads,it was a routine betting slips case — which got me to realize obvious stuff – like, I’ve been in this biz for decades, yet or some reason I deferred here to … a baseball stats writer living in ‘What’s Up Wit frickin Dorothy Land’.

      Lots of people way smarter than James, living in way less wilfully backward places, have these nutty blind spots – Linus Pauling and Freeman Dyson in particular.

      • Halloween Jack

        Pauling, William Shockley, and in particular Kary Mullis get put into the So Fucking What About Your Nobel Prize category.

  • DrDick

    Somebody needs to remind him of the first law of holes, though it sounds like it may already be a bit late fro that.

  • JRD

    That’s it exactly, Scott. Just as the ludicrous defense of Rose was motivated by James’s sanctimonious contrarianism, so too is his current embarrassment. James has so convinced himself that he is the smartest guy in the room that he simply cannot bear the idea that he’s not the lone voice of reason about everything.

    • ralphdibny

      See also James’s opinion that we don’t have enough data to come to a conclusion about global warming.

      “If everyone is fur it, I’m agin it! Because Galileo!”

      • F Hugh

        I love how people try to lump in beliefs about legal cases with climate change. Apples and Oranges not to mention the differences in evidence.

  • SamR

    Also, it drives me crazy when people use the government’s decision to not file criminal charges (or in some cases an acquittal) as a justification that the behavior was acceptable.

    The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” is incomplete, as the proper way to phrase it is “innocent in a court of law until proven guilty in a court of law.” Just b/c there’s not enough to win a criminal case doesn’t mean you ignore what happened as a regular person.

    Also I read Posnanski and the comments he’s made lately makes me absolutely think he’s still planning to release his Paterno book with a pro-JoePa slant. Honestly, I feel like this is b/c Posnanski put in a ton of work on his book and feels like its not fair to ask him to throw it all away. Understandable impulse, but wrong.

    • efgoldman

      Also, it drives me crazy when people use the government’s decision to not file criminal charges (or in some cases an acquittal) as a justification that the behavior was acceptable.

      Well, as soon as he gets out of jail in Nevada, OJ has promised to continue scouring the country for the malignancy that killed Nicole and Ron.

    • ralphdibny

      Yeah, I suspect Pos’s book will be all positive until the penultimate chapter, when we will get a not-very-objective rundown of the “unfortunate events.” The final chapter, of course, will remind us that these events shouldn’t overshadow the awesome awesomeness that was JoePa.

      I really hope I’m wrong, but I just don’t see Pos going back through and rewriting everything in light of what we now know, the way he should. Plus, college football fans don’t want to buy that book.

      • SJ

        I believe Pos’s book is due out in about a month, so the best we can expect is a tacked appendix which presumably will gloss over the Freeh report. James and Pos have both done major damage to their reputations by depending this slimeball.

        • John

          It’s really ridiculous that, instead of taking time to rewrite the book and taking into account the Freeh report, which was obviously going to come out around now, they decided instead to actually move the publication date forward. That’s not a good sign at all.

      • mark f

        I’ve said it before in these threads and I’ll say it again now: Joe Posnanski was in State College for the several months during which this story breaking was imminent (I’m not looking it up now, but a local columnist had written something about the recent grand jury appearances by Paterno and McQueary et al and how it all seemed to tie into Sandusky and Second Mile). Many people within Paterno’s immediate family and professional circles — the very people Posnanski would’ve been relying on for his research — would’ve also known this was coming. But according to Posnanski, once it hit the national news, he was just as in the dark and reliant upon ESPN and other sources as the rest of us. No one, according to all he’s said, hinted at all that something big was about to change the way everyone saw Paterno.

        Posnanski should, in a way, be more angry at all these people than the rest of are. But all he’s done so far is make excuses. It’s really destroyed my opinion of him as a writer, and I’ve gone from checking his blog every day to never.

        And it’s a real shame, because if this had happened without Posnanski there and his terrible comments since, I would’ve said he’d be exactly the guy to write the story.

        • David M. Nieporent

          I’m not sure it’s fair to blame Posnanski for being in the dark, and not understanding how this was going to play out. Remember, Spanier reacted to the grand jury report by expressing full support for and confidence in Schultz and Curley. Clearly, even he, despite knowing everything that had happened, was blindsided by the way the story developed.

          That Posnanski’s initial reaction was wrong is excusable. James’s “analysis” is not.

          • mark f

            I’m not blaming Posnanski for being in the dark. I’m disappointed in his instincts since finding out.

            And James has just been embarrassing.

  • Like Atrios says, it’s all about the incentives.
    Coach Joe and Bill James make their decisions based on pain v. gain.

    Does this Marxism make my butt look big?

  • BJ says

    but pathetic bystander is such a step up from immoral meddler

  • Thanks, Scott–I just saw your post at James’s website and came over here to see if you had followed up. It’s appalling and mystifying to me that an independent researcher like James can’t even be bothered to do a Google search before telling the world that your point is completely novel. “So far as I am aware,” indeed.

    • Jim

      Yeah, not to deflate your claim to historical fame, but:

      So far as I am aware, you are the first and only person to allege that Paterno intervened in a decision that had been made to report Sandusky.

      is sort of belied by a basic review of the facts.

      • “Our source was the New York Times!!”

        • Scott Lemieux

          Yeah, I plan a rundown in a follow-up post.

  • fourmorewars

    Hi. OT, but I was hoping some kind soul here could direct me, through useful google keywords if nothing else, to the alicublog comment that was so celebrated a coupla months back, a point-by-point mocking answer to the rightwing chainmail about Obama’s school records.

  • NOT defending Paterno- as I have been massively critical of him from day 1 and the second (without knowing ANYTHING) he gave his own press statement about how he would retire after coaching out the year, I supported his firing, no matter what his role was.

    In exploring the possibilities- is it not possible that the entire structure of people dealing with Joe was similar to the way McQueary dealt with him? By glossing over details? Is it even possible that they all dealt with Paterno in that fashion? Like of extreme deference to the point that Paterno just being generically uncomfortable with a “situation” was enough for them to back down? Please note that this excuses nothing- just trying to get at the nuts and bolts of this Challenger-style disaster. But because those *ssholes f*cked up big time, and then lied about it, we will never know. Because they will probably still deny any memory of those events even after they are convicted. I also would like to know what the list of questions were during the grand jury testimony. How specific were they and how many ways did they ask Paterno about what he knew. The only question that I think is out there is whether Paterno had heard anything about something of a sexual nature. There has not been released whether they asked him about had he heard anything about Sandusky related to children in any way, such as ‘showering with them or something of that nature’ – that is the question I would have wanted asked in hindsight.

    • Here is where the prosecutor dropped the ball:

      Q: Other than the incident that Mike McQueary reported to you, do you know in any way, through rumor, direct knowledge or any other fashion, of any other inappropriate sexual conduct by Jerry Sandusky with young boys?
      Mr. Paterno: I do not know of anything else that Jerry would be involved in of that nature, no. I do not know of it.
      You did mention — I think you said something about a rumor. It may have been discussed in my presence, something else about somebody.
      I don’t know.
      I don’t remember, and I could not honestly say I heard a rumor.
      Q: You indicated that your report was made directly to Tim Curley. Do you know of that report being made to anyone else that was a university official?
      Mr. Paterno: No, because I figured that Tim would handle it appropriately.
      I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Mr. Curley and I thought he would look into it and handle it appropriately.
      Q: We have no further questions of you.
      Testimony concluded at 11:13 a.m. Date, January 12, 2011, 11:20 a.m.

      Asking a whole series of questions in one question and then allowing a vague answer.

      • Sherm

        I have to disagree. Paterno was not a target of the investigation at the time because the university had failed to disclose the emails which revealed how he had “intervened” and thus conspired with his “superiors” to not report the crime to the authorities. The prosecutors were thus using Paterno’s testimony to build their case against Curley and Schultz. Moreover, the open ended questions asked by the prosecutor which resulted in long rambling responses from paterno would have resulted in a perjury indictment if paterno were still alive. He clearly perjured himself in the testimony you quoted.

        • No- what it appears is that Paterno could have said he was answering some part of a multipart question. It seems like he was not definitively put on the record. Regardless of the emails we know about now, “sexual contact” was in the question, when the 1998 incident could have been described as “showering” so why let him claim a distinction between the two as a possible defense?

    • Visitor

      I thought that some of JP’s grand jury testimony was his assurance that he’d told his superiors that something highly untoward had happened. Either way, I disagree with BJ’s comment, even though it’s much funnier than anything I’m about to say:

      but pathetic bystander is such a step up from immoral meddler

      Not for Paterno, and not for Spanier. No matter if Curley was the one pushing for the “oh-well-let’s talk to Jerry first and not to the authorities just yet” plan, Paterno went along with it, as Scott laid out so neatly. Above and beyond that, though — these are educators! Spanier is some kind of “family studies” prof by training, if you can believe it! And they both knew, and at least one of them authored, the policy whereby Sandusky was banned from bringing minors on campus.

      There is


      I can imagine which would justify that policy (if just for one person) and not also merit notifying the policies.

      Apparently my training on my mandatory-reporter status as a bloody effing substitute teacher in the state with the 48th-highest-achieving school district was a tad more effective than anything these guys had encountered. But with their brutal and effectively criminal powers of denial, maybe nothing would’ve gotten through…

      Thanks to everyone here for helping me get re-hinged.

      • Visitor

        PS: pls pretend I bolded “nothing” instead of block-quoting it, sorry!

    • Sherm

      Q: Without getting into any graphic detail, what did Mr. McQueary tell you he had seen and where?
      Mr. Paterno: Well, he had seen a person, an older — not an older, but a mature person who was fondling, whatever you might call it — I’m not sure what the term would be — a young boy.
      Q: Did he identify who that older person was?
      Mr. Paterno: Yes, a man by the name of Jerry Sandusky who had been one of our coaches, was not at the time.
      Q: You’re saying that at the time this incident was reported to you, Sandusky was no longer a coach?
      Mr. Paterno: No, he had retired voluntarily. I’m not sure exactly the year, but I think it was either ‘98 or ‘99.
      Q: I think you used the term fondling. Is that the term that you used?
      Mr. Paterno: Well, I don’t know what you would call it. Obviously, he was doing something with the youngster.
      It was a sexual nature. I’m not sure exactly what it was.

      • Sherm

        Damn phone. I emphasized the wrong sentence. The preceding sentence addresses pinko punko’s concerns

        • I think the key to the perjury was relative to his knowledge about the 1998 incident, but yes there is an angle on perjury regarding his knowledge of the Curley/Schultz followup, but she didn’t really ask him in detail if he knew the disposition of the matter- he appears to say he didn’t know anything more, but the claim could be about his reporting versus the followup. Also, he was 80-something at the time. I think he did lie.

  • Paul Gottlieb

    The problem is that the “Great Bill James,” the guy who had some extremely interesting insights about baseball and wrote about them in an lively, enjoyable way, disappeared around 1992. He has been replaced by Bill James the increasingly pompous and tedious pundit. Even his baseball writing has become turgid and uninteresting, and most of his writing on social issues could just as easily been written by Donald Trump. In some ways, James’s loss of objectivity and integrity mirror the moral collapse of Joe Paterno: What’s important now is not the truth, but preserving the myth that Bill James is never wrong

  • Breadbaker

    In 1998, Sandusky agrees he won’t shower with boys anymore. In 2001, he’s caught showering with a boy (whether there was more or not). Is there really anything any of them needed to know more than that in order to kick his sorry ass off campus for good? Of course not. But by then, Sandusky owned them, not the other way around: if indeed there was more than they knew they’d all look foolish for what they didn’t do in 1998. So they all just continued what was worse than a cover up, since they were basically enabling every rape Sandusky, Assistant Professor Emeritus of Physical Education, was committing on the campus where he was given lifetime access to the shower rooms.

    • Popeye

      Bingo. You cover up for Sandusky once and you have incentives to keep on covering up for him. It’s not long before you have no way out without admitting complicity for dozens of abuse cases.

  • Sherm

    Great job, Scott. I first started reading bill James when he published his annual out of his home and advertised it in the back of the once great sporting news. Baffling that someone so intelligent can be so stubbornly stupid about this case.

    One problem Scott: You keep referring to the mcqueary shower incident as if it happened in 2002. It was 2001. Common mistake due to conflict between testimony and emails.

  • Sherm
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  • Al Sternbe

    Newsflash for Bill James. Not only is the concept of moneyball enormously flawed, but you are an absolute moron who sounds more like Dottie Sandusky than an educated man when discussing your defense of the criminal Joe Paterno. WE ARE ALL MANDATORY REPORTERS you idiot! Regardless of your title, position in society, your standing, your age, your ignorance–WE ARE ALL MANDATORY REPORTERS! We’re talking about CHILDREN BEING RAPED! You hear about something like this–you TELL SOMEONE in Authority!

  • O da humanity

    I’m another reader of James who finds the guy to be mindboggling. He wrote a great analytical book about baseball managers some years ago, but threw in a wild pitch by including an editorial defending Marge Schott, who was getting heat at the time from other baseball owners for her 19th century racial opinions. His basic point of view was “Leave Marge alone!!!”

  • CBG

    Bill James doubles down on the Joe Paterno defense

    On the Doug Gottlieb’s ESPN Radio show:

    “[Paterno] knew less about [Sandusky] than everyone else there … He had very few allies. He was isolated. He was not nearly as powerful as people imagine him to have been … they kept it quiet because they had no idea what was happening … they just thought they were dealing with a little misunderstanding … people who are responsible for it are the media. The media created this smokescreen behind which Sandusky operated, and then they’re trying to blame Paterno.”

    Yes, the media is to blame for Sandusky raping little boys.

    At the 14:10 mark Gottlieb asks James, “have you ever showered with a boy? Do you know anybody who has showered with a boy?” James says “Yes, that was actually quite common in the town I grew up in. That was quite common in America 40 years ago.”


    • Richard

      I ‘m 65. Men showering with boys was not common 40 years ago. And let me state what should be obvious. Bill James’ nonsense about Rose, Paterno, global warming, etc should lead any sensible reader to look again With a fair degree of skepticism at some of his conclusions about baseball.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I don’t think it should, really. As James as always said, there’s arguments backed up by evidence, and there’s bullshit. I don’t think the latter discredits the former.

        • Richard

          James initially was accepted as a breath of fresh air but the question should always be whether the facts support the theory I think some of his claims were nice theories but unproven. Anything he has said should be looked at skeptically to see if the facts support the theory. I think some of his stuff will stand up but some won’t (one being the idea, which I believe he has backed down from, that there is no such thing as a hitting streak)

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