The Failure of Public Opinion

As I write this, Joe Paterno is being eaten alive.

Every news and media company camped out on the University Park campus, clamoring for details on the awful story that has engulfed Penn State over the past five days.  And yet Penn State, with its staff of public relations experts and high-ranking administrators who should be out in the public eye meeting this story head on, has not just been silent--the university has been aggressively silent.  It would be bad enough if university officials were simply staying out of the spotlight and ducking tough questions that need to be answered.  But with a throng of media members already assembled for Joe's regularly scheduled press conference Tuesday, the Sports Information Director informed them that the press conference had been cancelled by order of President Spanier.  Even when Joe Paterno himself finally gave in and announced his retirement, the Sports Information Director quickly followed up to clarify that such announcement came from the Paterno family and not from the university.  That is what I mean by aggressive silence.

And so, after being rebuffed on every front, the freshly-antagonized news media has focused on the one figure at Penn State who hasn't hid his face or refused to speak: Joe.  With Sandusky, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier all in hiding, Joe quickly became the face of this scandal.  With nothing else to cover and no one else to talk about, the news media quickly turned to speculating about whether or not Joe should have done more.  Caught in a feedback loop of anger and moral outrage with nowhere for the discussion to go, facts and thoughtful consideration have been drowned out by hysterical judgment and a thirst for retribution.  And with all other Penn State figures successfully hidden from public scrutiny, Joe has become the only name left in the discussion.

The Grand Jury report has drawn a rough sketch of Joe's conduct, but with nothing else to go on, the ravenous media has filled in every blank space with callous indifference to make Joe look like a villain.  With nothing but silence coming from the university, and with Joe himself being silenced on the university's orders, there is nothing to combat this characterization, and the feedback loop of hostility he's stuck in continues to grow.  Well, I'm here to combat it, in whatever small way I can.  When Joe finally speaks to the media, I expect and hope it will sound something like this: 

Jerry Sandusky had been a friend and colleague of mine for decades.  So when my assistant coach came to me that Saturday morning, I was shocked by what he told me.  I didn't want to believe that what he'd seen was true--that my friend was engaged in sexual conduct with a child--but the poor young man was so shaken, so profoundly disturbed by what he'd seen that I couldn't dismiss this as a mistake or misunderstanding; I knew something had to be done.

I called my superior, Tim Curley, and met with him in person the very next day.  I told him the story as it had been told to me, and we discussed what should be done next.  We agreed that the assistant coach should meet with Gary Schultz, who was in charge of the university's police force, and give Mr. Schultz a full account of what he had witnessed.  Bringing this matter directly to Mr. Schultz, I thought, would ensure that it would be investigated with the appropriate levels of priority and discretion.  Tim assured me that he would arrange the meeting.  I continued to counsel the distraught assistant coach over the following weeks and months, and he informed me that he'd met with Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz, who, upon hearing his account, assured him that the matter would be investigated.


With Mr. Schultz informed of the same facts as I was, and with the university police force at his disposal, I was confident that the matter was in good hands.  As the months went by, I began to wonder if anything had come of the investigation.  I did not inquire about it, because I knew that the details of such investigations were highly confidential.  Besides, I had every reason to believe that the police force would do their job to the fullest, and in the mean time, Mr. Sandusky had done nothing to arouse further suspicion, in me or in anyone else.  As months became years, I assumed that the investigation must have concluded without uncovering any wrongdoing by Mr. Sandusky.  While the experience of consoling my distraught assistant coach that day stayed with me, I took comfort in my belief that the police force had done its job and that my longtime colleague was not the monster I had once suspected.


That belief was shattered on Saturday, as I read the Grand Jury's report, and learned that Mr. Sandusky remained free, not because the police had investigated and cleared him, but because Mr. Schultz had never acted on the evidence that my assistant coach presented him with.  To learn that one innocent child had been brutalized in such a way would have been enough to take the heart of me.  To learn of eight victims, all at the hands of my onetime friend and colleague, filled me with indescribable despair.

Now, I look back over the incident with the knowledge I have now, searching for what I might have done differently.  I trusted Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz to treat this matter with the utmost seriousness it deserved.  It is clear now that my trust was betrayed.  I wish I had know of their failure sooner, so that I might have entrusted this matter with more capable professionals, and prevented Mr. Sandusky from claiming more victims.  But at the time, my long relationship with Tim and the professional reputation of Mr. Schultz led me to believe that my trust was well-placed.

I'm no public relations expert, but that's GOT to be better than anything Scott Paterno's come up with over the past couple days, right? /modicum of levity

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