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The Man Who Knew Too Little

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What, and I cannot stress this enough, the fuck:

Gladwell: You know I have that chapter on Jerry Sandusky in my book, and it’s all about how I feel the leadership of Penn State was totally, outrageously attacked over this. I think they’re blameless.

Simmons: Yeah.

Gladwell: But with Joe Paterno… Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong. He hears the allegation and immediately tells his superiors, and the critique of Joe Paterno was essentially, “Why was a 75-year-old football coach not behaving towards a suspected pedophile with the savvy and insight of a psychiatrist?”

Simmons: Right.

Gladwell: He’s a football coach! He doesn’t even know what the word—there was this hilarious—[regretful sigh] hilarious—there was this moment in, I think one of the trial transcripts, where someone was asked, “Did you use, when you went to”—the quarterback who goes to Paterno, McQueary, the former quarterback, goes to Paterno to tell him this allegation—“Did you use the word sodomy?” And he’s like, “No I didn’t use the word sodomy.” And then there’s this sort of thing, I think, where they’re wondering whether Paterno actually knew what the word sodomy was [laughing].

Simmons: Right.


Gladwell: He doesn’t! He’s been thinking football 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 60 years. He is not going to be alert to the darkness inside the heart of one of his former coaches. You can’t ask him to do that. That’s why you have mental health professionals or fit, trained psychologists in the world to handle those kind of problems. We do this thing sometimes when a crisis happens, when we suddenly expect our leaders to be skilled at absolutely every job under the sun. They’re not.

Tom Ley, who comments:


Gladwell isn’t doing anything here that Joe Posnanski and Sally Jenkins didn’t already do years ago, which is to excuse Paterno’s failure to call the cops by rendering him as a doddering old simpleton who couldn’t possibly be expected to understand or properly respond to being told that his longtime assistant coach was seen raping a boy in the Penn State showers. It only holds water if you believe that old people are children, and that football coaches are incapable of understanding anything other than football.


If Gladwell has added anything to this standard defense of Paterno, it’s his willingness to move the goalposts a few hundred yards down the field. At what point in time was the critique of Paterno based on the fact that he didn’t respond to what Mike McQueary described to him with the “savvy and insight of a psychiatrist”? As far as anyone who is not compelled to make up a bunch of dumb bullshit for the sake of writing and selling a book is concerned, the critique of Paterno has always been that he should have called the fucking cops.

This is, needless to say, right — the idea that you have to be an expert in child psychology to understand such incredibly difficult concepts as “if someone tells you they saw your colleague raping a young boy you should call the police” is embarrassing nonsense.

But it’s actually even worse than this. Gladwell’s claim that Paterno was someone who thought about nothing but football for 60 years is staggeringly, howlingly false. Paterno’s WHOLE DEAL, the reason Joe Posnanski was in Happy Valley to write a hagiography when Sandusky was finally arrested, was that Paterno was not your typical Adam Gase-style one-dimensional tape grinder, working 20 hour days and rushing out on his wife mid-delivery so he can come up with the perfect 1-yard pass to throw on 3rd-and-13. He was a very wordly and well-read man who really did value education highly, and this was said about him in virtually every glowing profile. For example, his Times obituary:


Joe Paterno loved the classics. He quoted Shakespeare to his team, devoured the poems of Virgil and donated his money to help save Penn State’s classics department, even endowing a scholarship in the name of his high school Latin teacher, the Rev. Thomas Bermingham.

On one level, this is superfluous; Adam Gase may not have much time for fiction but I’m pretty confident he 1)knows what sodomy is and 2)that raping children is both illegal and immoral. But the larger point here is that Malcolm Gladwell is making grand pronouncements about stuff he clearly knows almost nothing about. If you think Joe Paterno was someone who thought about nothing but football for 60 years you clearly aren’t well-informed enough to be drawing conclusions about his innocence. And this makes the real reason he thinks Paterno, Spanier et al did nothing wrong even more egregious:

On Tuesday, best-selling author, intellectual and popular podcaster Malcolm Gladwell is out with a new book, Talking to Strangers. In it, there is a chapter devoted to reexamining the so-called Penn State/Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, which shocked the world when it became one of the biggest news stories of the century in November of 2011.

This is particularly significant to me because, after eventually becoming convinced — by actually speaking directly to most of the people at the real heart of the case — that almost nothing the news media told us about it was true, I have (foolishly) devoted much of the last eight years of my life to finding out what really did happen in that saga. Gladwell, who contacted me more than a year ago while researching the subject, uses an important piece of my investigation in justifying why he has shifted his position, and now believes that Penn State leadership was totally innocent, and can no longer say with any confidence that even Sandusky himself is guilty.

Who is this John Zeigler, who Gladwell thinks is very credible about the Sandusky scandal? Well:

Let’s first get this out of the way: Ziegler’s two previous films alleged that the Clinton administration was responsible for 9/11 and that Barack Obama got elected in 2008 because the media were really mean to Sarah Palin. That ought to give you an idea of the sort of mind we’re dealing with here, as should the fact that he and Palin are no longer on speaking terms. Ziegler and I have had a number of exchanges about the Penn State case since last summer, some cordial, some not, all of them conducted on his end with a paranoid and martyred air of lonely genius.

Yeah. Right. Right.

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