Essay on two new books about Penn State athletics
When decision makers at Pennsylvania State University decided to tear down the seven-foot statue of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, I expressed my disgust — originally stated at the creation — that such a statue ever existed. If anybody deserves a statue on a university campus, that person would be an outstanding professor or an outstanding student.
A denizen of any campus where worshipping big-time football feels de rigueur can feel threatened when explaining how the sport poisons academia. Sometimes I feel akin to an agnostic who points out the ridiculous nature of the Bible story while attending a church service as a guest.
Books Discussed in This Essay
Paterno, a biography by Joe Posnanski, Simon & Schuster, published August 2012
Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State, and the Culture of Silence, by Bill Moushey and Bob Dvorchak,
Morrow/HarperCollins, published April 2012
What has been revealed about Penn State in the past year supplies ammunition to previously marginalized critics of big-time football like myself. Yet it is difficult to feel joy given the circumstances.
A queasy feeling arises while citing the Penn State mess to score points in the debate about the undesirable role of big-time football in academe; after all, numerous adolescents became victims of sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach who had been lionized for decades. Nobody should enjoy saying anything that feels like exploiting those victims.
For me personally, the queasiness factor multiplies by near-infinity because the president of Penn State who lost his job during the mess is my friend of 50 years' duration.
But eschewing the rare opportunity to speak truth to power on football-besotted college campuses would be wrong. So I will speak up, relying on my dual status as professional book reviewer and University of Missouri emeritus professor to enter through the side door. Two just-published books about the Penn State mess provide a convenient platform for the review/essay you are reading now.
If you believe the culture of big-time college football is healthy for so-called student-athletes on the team; if you believe any college football coach should be paid more than a half-million dollars per year; if you believe faculty and staff and non-football players within the student body are better off because of revenue from the games and corruption of classroom standards — well, you might want to stop reading now. I hope, however, that you will continue.
What a shame that Penn State ended up serving as the cornerstone of the movement for de-emphasis of big-time football. The evidence is plentiful in both books that Paterno sincerely cared about football players studying and graduating. He called his plan "the Grand Experiment." As reported by Bill Moushey and Bob Dvorchak, Paterno would ask the high school students he recruited for the football team, "What if we have the best of both worlds? What if Penn State kids were smart enough to graduate from Harvard and athletic enough to beat Alabama" for a national championship?
The co-authors came to believe through their reporting that the Grand Experiment succeeded. So does the author of the Paterno biography, who has accumulated dozens of compelling examples.
When Penn State won a national championship with Paterno as coach, that same year its quarterback earned a Phi Beta Kappa designation with a grade-point average of 3.83 on a 4.0 scale. "The graduation rate for players that year was 90 percent, higher than the overall student population at Penn State," according to Moushey and Dvorchak, both former reporters at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Dvorchak specialized in sports coverage; Moushey specialized in digging out corruption and injustice.)
Game Over serves as a primer on the criminality of Sandusky and the broken criminal justice system that allowed him to remain free as a serial child molester year after year. The book appeared in stores during April, and received a surprisingly small amount of attention given the timely and sensational topic. The book has since been overtaken somewhat by events, especially the release of the Freeh report, named after chief investigator Louis Freeh, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director hired by Penn State to examine the university’s responsibility regarding Sandusky’s serial molestations of boys. The Moushey-Dvorchak book is easier to digest than the Freeh report, however, and is pretty much devoid of the sweeping, harsh judgments about Penn State administrators disseminated by Freeh.
The Paterno biography is receiving lots of attention. The commentary began before the book’s official publication date of August 21. That is no surprise. Author Joe Posnanski, a veteran sports journalist, received a gigantic advance (reportedly $750,000); moved to State College to immerse himself in his subject’s life before Sandusky’s crimes became publicly known; received extraordinary cooperation from Paterno; capitalized on his already-substantial readership as a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and author of previous books; plus benefited from being edited by Jonathan Karp, one of the very best in the trade book realm. Rarely (if ever) has a biographer been forced to re-evaluate a life so dramatically when so close to the finish line. Then losing access to Paterno after the cancer in his body spread so quickly, killing him last January, created even more difficulty for Posnanski’s re-evaluation.
Karp, in a letter to potential reviewers of the book, calls the biography "an indelible portrait of a remarkable and complicated life, and it provokes serious questions about how we measure the meaning of a life." So true. In fact, "learning how to measure the meaning of a life" sounds like a wise mission statement for a university.
I knew little about Paterno before reading the biography, other than his reputation as a winning coach who sincerely cared about his players. Based on Posnanksi’s research, I judge Paterno positively as an on-field coach, as a husband, as a father, as a mentor to countless young athletes. Should Paterno have known about Sandusky’s penchant for molesting boys? Perhaps, considering how many decades they worked together. Did Paterno know, and participate in a cover-up? Based on Posnanski’s reporting, probably not. Paterno was so focused simultaneously on his players’ welfare and on winning games that it is plausible he suspected nothing about Sandusky’s criminal behavior.
Toward the end of the book, Posnanski describes the thinking of Jay Paterno, the son of the head coach who became an assistant coach, working alongside Sandusky. The description by Posnanski of what Jay Paterno concluded seems to reflect much of what Posnanski arrived at, and what I have also adopted as my starting point: "If Sandusky was guilty, everybody was fooled.... How could [anybody] believe [Joe Paterno] knew about evils that nobody else seemed to know about?"
Another distinguished career being re-evaluated is Graham Spanier’s. Before his departure under pressure from the Penn State presidency last November, he had served 16 years as one of the most visible, controversial and — dare I remind people — respected university chieftains in the United States. Countless individuals who had admired Spanier’s job performance now revile him as somebody who somehow enabled a child molester on campus — even though Spanier knew nothing about Sandusky’s criminal behavior while Sandusky was employed at Penn State.
Spanier and I met as freshmen in high school. Our friendship grew, even as we competed for the affection of the same young woman as teenagers and shared a position on the high school newspaper. Spanier married in 1971, soon after college graduation. I served as a groomsman.
Proceeding relentlessly and brilliantly through the hoops, Spanier earned a doctorate, achieving expertise in the field of sociology/ family relations, with deep knowledge about troubled children and their parents. I knew something not many people in Spanier’s life knew — he had been physically abused as a child by his father. I knew Spanier’s father, and stayed away from him.
Unlike me, Spanier values the role of big-time football. He enjoys his role as fan, somehow (like millions of others) finding fulfillment in a sport I consider barbaric. (I should make clear that I believe all other intercollegiate sports except big-time basketball contribute positively to campus life. Athletes I have encountered from university baseball, tennis, swimming and wrestling teams labor mightily as students and also try to avoid situations that result in criminal records. I still play competitive baseball and tennis at age 64.)
Despite Spanier’s enjoyment of football, he would have liked to de-emphasize its overweening importance in the minds of students, faculty, staff and alumni. But by 1995, when Spanier became president, it was way too late for that. He realized he needed to be satisfied with a coach who treated academic performance seriously, who donated millions of dollars to the university library, and who did not rank the scholarly mission of Penn State below the football team’s won-lost record.
Spanier had to deal with the football/academia nexus to some extent while provost at Oregon State University. When he moved to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln as chancellor, Spanier entered another world, though. The Nebraska campus might rival the Penn State campus in its fervor for football. Spanier did not flinch when he felt he had to ease out a legendary athletic director. For the remainder of his tenure at Nebraska, Spanier and his family had to live with death threats. Understanding that big-time football should be better-integrated with academia, Spanier played increasingly influential roles within the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Offered the presidency at Penn State, Spanier was acutely aware of the influence Paterno wielded. Spanier knew he would sometimes have to delegate, sometimes look the other way when trouble arose. After all, Spanier was president not only of the main campus in State College, but 23 other campuses spread across the sprawling state. Spanier was responsible for close to 50,000 employees, around 90,000 students, and a budget that reached into the billions. He could not always obsess about Paterno. And he certainly could not know everything about Sandusky. In fact, by the time Spanier knew anything suspicious about Sandusky’s behavior around boys, the assistant coach was a former Penn State employee.
Posnanski, based on secondhand information about Spanier, characterizes him in the Paterno biography as "a dynamic and curious personality. He craved attention. He performed magic tricks at parties. He played washboard regularly in a State College band called the Deacons of Dixieland. His band biography read 'In his spare time he serves as president of Penn State University.' He dressed in a gorilla costume when he became chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and when he was Penn State’s president he sometimes dressed as the university's mascot. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona, and he had his pilot's license, flying whenever the opportunity arose. He would wander around campus before classes began to help students move into their dorm rooms… Spanier was a political animal who cared deeply about everyone’s opinion… Spanier enjoyed being unconventional, being viewed as quirky and offbeat and even a little goofy."
The activities Posnanski describes are all part of Spanier, yes. But "craved attention" and "cared deeply about everyone’s opinion"? Not the Spanier I’ve known for 50 years. Much of each 24-hour cycle, he is a workaholic, serious about serving a university with near-perfection. The rest of each cycle, he is a man of many interests, some of them unusual, who exhibits an extreme joie de vivre.
I understand from a public relations standpoint why Spanier is no longer Penn State president. But I resent that higher education has lost an important voice when it comes to so many issues where Spanier earned a leadership role — not only intercollegiate athletics, but also music piracy by students, and national security’s intersection with campus research.
There is a tiny amount of actual evidence that Spanier could have known about a couple of Sandusky’s predations before last year. The Freeh report includes two e-mails regarding Sandusky’s alleged misbehavior with a boy during 1998. Spanier was not the primary recipient of those messages; instead he is copied on the cc: line along with other recipients. Spanier tells me he never saw, or at least does not recall seeing, those two e-mails. I believe him. Although I’m an investigative reporter with 45 years professional experience, perhaps I’m naïve about my friend. But I doubt that.
It is unimaginable to me that Spanier would tell me lies about Sandusky, Paterno or anybody/anything else. Three thoughts to bolster my belief in Spanier’s version regarding those 1998 emails: first, the wording does not state Sandusky engaged in criminal behavior. Second, even if criminal behavior could have been intuited from the vague language, Spanier would have been correct to leave the investigation to campus police, city police, child welfare investigators, and the local prosecutor. Third, Spanier is obsessive about answering e-mails and snail mail and returning telephone messages. If those 1998 cc: emails had been cause for alarm, Spanier quite likely would have fired off an answer fast.
Whatever happens to Spanier as the mess at Penn State continues to unravel, I want to end this essay optimistically. For decades, the quest to reduce the negative influences of big-time football (and basketball) on campus life has seemed futile. Yet both books demonstrate that the Grand Experiment initiated by Paterno at Penn State worked: It is possible to field a winning team composed of athletes who enroll in regular courses, study diligently, earn good grades, graduate, and find a career when playing football is no longer an option. Maybe other universities will install their versions of the Grand Experiment as key figures in administration read the evidence presented in the two books.
Here is a parable: Thirty years ago, I began reporting and writing about a terrible mess within the American criminal justice system. As I and other journalists began to document wrongful convictions, almost nobody believed the evidence. Then DNA testing arrived, and public opinion changed. Eventually, the criminal justice system in state after state, county after county, adopted significant reforms. Maybe Penn State will become the symbol of big-time football reform.
Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books, including three biographies and one about the biographical craft.