Home / General / The Paterno “I’m Not Omniscient” Non-Sequitur

The Paterno “I’m Not Omniscient” Non-Sequitur


For the reasons Dom Cosentino explains, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent story has the same problem Joe Posnanski has: defending the conduct of the Penn State hierarchy over the Sandusky affair by blurring together pre- and post-1998 conduct. Once you draw the correct distinctions, the “how could he have known what trained child welfare professionals didn’t?” defense obviously fails.  To again state the obvious:

  • It would be foolish to blame Paterno, Spanier et al. for not recognizing Sandusky as a child rapist before 1998.  There is, indeed, no way you call just “tell.”
  • Paul and I might actually disagree mildly on this point, but I don’t think PSU can be blamed for not stopping Sandusky in 1998.  If he was investigated by the proper authorities and cleared, any failures are on the authorities.   1998 is relevant only insofar as that what they knew in 2001 had to be interpreted in light of the investigation they knew about and makes their inaction even less excusable.
  • But Paterno, Spanier et al. certainly should have known that Sandusky was a child rapist after they were given a first-hand account of Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in 2001.  Even if you give the most charitable interpretation of what McQueary told Paterno, there was no excuse for not contacting the authorities, and it doesn’t require that Paterno be omniscient or have a magic ability to spot a predator.
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  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Nicely put, Scott. I am amazed and disgusted by the number of folks who continue to attempt to muddy these waters in order to defend St. JoePa. As you say, they really aren’t that muddy.

    • DrDick

      All sins are forgiven in the face of winning football teams. Sick and disgusting, but true.

    • Jim

      To be quite fair to Malcolm Gladwell, I understood his distortions not to be a defense of Joe Paterno, and more in service of the glib thesis of his next book.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        I think we’ve learned, on the basis of what feels like 10,000 hours of Gladwell, that the best explanation for things that he writes is usually that they serve Teh Glib.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Look, if not for that time in Hamburg, the Beatles wouldn’t have become the greatest live band of their era, and Ringo Starr never could have become a first-rate songwriter.

  • mark f

    Hey, when McQueary said he saw Sandusky fucking a kid in the shower, Paterno didn’t know he meant sexually. He might’ve been sneaking extra jumps in Chinese checkers or something.

  • Aaron B.

    While I think you’re correct in Paterno’s particular case, I thought the article as a whole was very compelling, if also somewhat hard to read for how disgusting it is.

    • Anderson

      Yah, good article. I missed the JoePa exoneration.

    • Halloween Jack

      Actually, the article is crap. Gladwell plays up the old “stranger danger” stereotype of the predator who “grooms” kids that are unrelated to him, with an easily identifiable pattern of behavior, contrary to the reality of the vast majority of child sexual abuse taking place at the hand of family members. The only real verifiable pattern here is Gladwell simplifying a topic at the expense of truth; he should have stuck to talking about ketchup.

      • Heron

        Family members and people they ought to be able to trust. Sandusky’s position as a pseudo social-worker for “troubled boys” puts his abuse squarely within the common pattern which, as you say, Gladwell obscures here for the purposes of flattering common streotypes about the issue.

        • thusbloggedanderson

          Did the New Yorker run *two* articles about pedophiles by Gladwell?

          Because I seem to’ve read a different one.

      • Gladwell’s article wasn’t about child molesters and opportunistic crime. He was writing about predatory pedophiles who manipulate their way into positions of trust and carefully select and groom victims over a period of years.

  • Anderson

    Yah, good article. I missed the JoePa exoneration. N

    • Anderson

      Damn phone.

  • It’s bothersome, because I think the larger point—that child molesters (and rapists and batterers, I’d add) put a lot of work into establishing a reputation so people defend them—is important. The belief that you can “just tell” is why so many predators and batterers go undetected, and explains so much, including why Chris Brown still has defenders even after he pled guilty to battering. But the conclusion is not “we can do nothing”, but “if we recognize their behavior for what it is, we can silence the urge to disbelieve or blame the victims”.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Precisely. There is an important point to be made here, which is why it’s important to keep these issues conceptually distinct. The belief that you can spot child predators isn’t unrelated to the belief that you shouldn’t credit accusations made against people who seem superficially respectable.

      • thusbloggedanderson

        The point I took from the article was, “molesters work really hard to be undetected, so you should take every complaint seriously.”

        • Aaron B.

          Yeah, and “having frank conversations with your children and making them aware of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors is important.”

  • It’s worth noting the connections between how PA handled Sandusky and it’s relentless effort to put Terry Williams to death. Andrew Cohen:

    The brief also tells us that some of the same state officials who came late to the Sandusky scandal, reassuring their mortified constituents that they are sensitive to the difficulties in reporting child sex abuse, have cynically turned that argument around in Williams’ case. He didn’t come forward, either, for many years, to report the ways in which he was being raped by older men, including older men in positions of power and trust. And now, say these politicians and bureaucrats, it’s too late for Williams to bring it up; too late even though his life is on the line.

  • witless chum

    It’s a really amazing demonstration of people not being able to hold the ideas of “Joe Paterno was a hella charming guy and a good football coach,” “Joe Paterno believed in big-time football as an adjunct to building a great university, not the other way around” and “Joe Paterno covered up sexual abuse of children by his coworker of decades” in their head at the same time.

    The evidence suggests he was clearly all those things and I’d have no trouble believing that the coverup of Sandusky’s child raping was less about protecting Joe Pa than it was about protecting his beloved Penn State’s reputation.

    But some people seem incapable of recalculating their view of the man based on new information. Science has warned us that people are terrible at this, (apropos, given that it exists partly to counteract this tendency among humans) but it’s always surprising when we see it confirmed because everyone views themselves as rational.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      This actually cuts both ways. I think covering up child rape should far outweigh the things Paterno did for Penn State in our moral assessment of the man. But I’m also surprised at those who seem to want to deny that he ever did anything for the university.

      It reminds of those who argued that noted child rapist and fugitive from justice Roman Polanski really isn’t a good filmmaker. While his filmmaking in no way exonerates his crimes, he is, in fact, a great (if uneven) filmmaker.

      And neither of these cases involves any sort of strong cognitive dissonance. One can, of course, be very devoted to an institution and also be a morally obtuse (or worse) when it comes to the protection of children. And one can be a great filmmaker, yet be a horrible, even criminal, human being (Leni Riefenstahl, anyone?).

      There seems to be a very strong urge to imagine that bad people can do nothing but bad. And this is simply not the case…unfortunately so, when it comes to identifying, e.g., child rapists.

  • Sherm

    It would be foolish to blame Paterno, Spanier et al. for not recognizing Sandusky as a child rapist before 1998. There is, indeed, no way you [could] just “tell.”

    “Foolish” seems a little harsh. While there is certainly no reason at this point in time to focus on their failure to recognize Sandusky as a child rapist prior to 1998, the truth is that we have no idea what they knew or didn’t know prior to that time. But we do know that they lied under oath about what they knew in 1998 and 2001 and participated in a cover-up. They are thus not entitled to the benefit of the doubt in my opinion. I would not be surprised if evidence is unearthed by plaintiff’s lawyers showing that they knew much more than is commonly accepted and should have known prior to 1998. If its true that the cover-up is always worse than the crime, there is a lot more which could be revealed regarding the extent of the cover-up.

    • tucker

      It has occurred to me and probably others also that you just don’t decide to wake up and become a child molester one day. There has to be some actions or indications prior to 1998 that aren’t in the public record. That’s why I was always surprised by the Paterno family. You keep digging and you may find out things, you don’t want to know.

      I’m not saying things should be covered up, just agreeing that 1998 seems arbitrary.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Conservative, perhaps, but not arbitrary. We know that, starting in 1998, Paterno knew that Sandusky might be a child molester. We simply don’t know whether he had any reason to believe he was before then. Yes, it’s possible he did. But it’s also possible that he didn’t (the two men reportedly did not get along very well off the football field).

        • Scott Lemieux

          Right. I’m not going to be shocked if evidence emerges that PSU should have known before 1998, but 1)as of now there’s no evidence, and 2)it’s entirely possible that they had no way of knowing. To assume that Paterno and Spanier just had to know before 1998 is just another way of making the “but you can tell” argument that is in fact completely fallacious.

  • AuRevoirGopher

    I’ve assumed for awhile that Sandusky was “retired” in 1999 because JoePa and Penn were spooked by his brush with the law in 1998. Meaning they knew. Now Gladwell, using the biographer as a source, says Pa thought about firing him many times, supposedly because he hated Jerry “being Jerry” and all those damn kids who used to follow him around. Is that bullshit? Was there any sign of those feelings prior to 1999, or was Sandusky what he appeared to be, JoePa’s heir apparent?

    • Scott Lemieux

      Posnanski is actually pretty convincing when he argues that 1)Paterno never liked Sandusky, and 2)that his firing wasn’t directly related to the 1998 investigation.

  • cpinva

    apologists, being fact resistant, will always be apologists, it’s their nature. while prior to 1998, there’s no reason (at least that we’re aware of) that paterno should have had any reason to suspect sandusky of being anything more than an annoyance off the field, by 2001, this isn’t the case, a pattern was established. yes, i know sandusky was cleared in the 1998 claim, but that should have served as a wake-up call to everyone involved in the PSU athletic program, that sandusky should have been given, if nothing else, heightened scrutiny of his activities, at least while he was on the campus. 2001 should have removed any remaining doubt. it either didn’t, or for reasons known only to paterno, he made a conscious decision (which would put him in the same monster class as sandusky, in my opinion) to ignore the obvious.

    the argument has been made, poorly, that paterno was running a top tier college football program, which required his full attention, increasing the likelyhood that he just never really noticed what was going on. the problem with that argument is that he had time to engage in other, unrelated activities, at the same time. clearly, he could engage, if it was important to him to do so. add to this the fact that he was told, point-blank, by an adult witness, of sandusky raping a child in the locker room shower, and apparently did nothing, beyond (so we are told, anyway) reporting the incident to the proper authorities. he never followed up, when it became clear sandusky was still there.

    all his (and the school’s) moralizing hot air to the contrary, those at-risk kids just weren’t important enough to him to waste scarce, allocable man-hours on, until it finally blew up in everyone’s faces. paterno didn’t, himself, commit those acts on those children, but he sure as hell facilitated them, by his acts of omission. in sandusky’s case, he may legitimately have a psychological problem, which he can’t control. he clearly knew it was wrong, but sought no help, but he at least has some excuse for what he did. paterno had none, making his culpability even worse, in my opinion. how many children wouldn’t have been victims, had coach joe got off his ass, and inquired within, when it became apparent that nothing was being done with sandusky, in spite of the eye witness testimony of an adult? i have no idea, but even one is one too many, and paterno bears the blame for that child’s victimization, every bit as much as sandusky does. you just can’t apologize that away.

    • emjayay

      Why do certain people think it’s cool or something to write without bothering to capitalize (the first letter of) the first word in the sentence? Why not write backwards or upside down or in a language of your own invention while you’re at it?

      Like Germans still do, we used to capitalize nouns. Then we realized we didn’t really need to, but retained the capitalization of proper nouns because that has some utility. We also retained capitalization of the first word in a sentence because that is also a useful convention.

      If your aren’t e e cummings, and you aren’t writing poetry, please discover those shift keys. There is one at each side of the keyboard.

      • John John

        I LOVE it!

  • mch

    How much of a role in this mix was played by the RC hierarchy’s standard response to child molestation and rape? Let’s grant for argument’s sake (I tend to believe it actually to be true) that Joe P was a thoughtful and decent man (in conventional terms — terms not to be sneezed at) who believed in “education” and “football” with equal passion. And in the god and world of his RC conventional piety (again, nothing to be sneezed at, however easy it is to jab at all that). Would this Joe P — a very decent (if flawed, like all of us) man have responded differently, after his antennae were definitely up after 1998, if the models provided him by the RC hierarchy he attended to had provided real and proper moral leadership? He very likely would have, I think.
    A lesson to the RC hierarchy, and to us all.

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