The building up and tearing down of a Strawman named Joe

by Gary Levitt
It’s the oldest trick in the book. You win an argument by exaggerating and distorting the other side’s position. Here’s how it goes:

The Build-Up:
You Penn Stater’s all believed Joe Paterno was a god. You worshipped him. Saint Joe. Nothing happened in Happy Valley that he didn’t know of and approve. He ran the University.

The Accusation:
Jerry Sandusky was a close friend and he protected him and his precious football program instead of protecting innocent children from abuse.

The Challenge:
Tell me how you can justify supporting someone who enabled a pedophile just to win football games and was more interested in his own legacy than he was in the welfare of children entrusted to his care?

The Conclusion:
Joe Paterno, the man everyone thought was the Mother Teresa of college athletics was actually the Mr. Hyde. He was pure evil and anyone who defends him is delusional and insensitive to the suffering of Jerry Sandusky’s victims.

Since November 9, 2011 anyone who has tuned in to a sports talk show, or watched the 24-hour “news” channels, or read the comments following online articles, or discussed Penn State at the office water cooler, has heard a variation of this argument. And, inevitably the Strawman named Joe gets ripped to shreds and his defenders are left speechless or frustrated or angry.

Part of the problem has been that, from the beginning, those charged with governing Penn State have been content to let the blame fall on Coach Paterno. Instead of standing with him against the onslaught of a sensation-seeking media mob, they calculated that scapegoating Joe would deflect scrutiny from their own culpability.

A Governor who had been the Attorney General certainly didn’t want attention focussed on his casual approach to the investigation and prosecution of the founder of the Second Mile Charity which had provided so much financial support to his campaign.

The Trustees who had been too busy socializing and networking and enjoying their super box treatment at “the greatest show in college football” to notice that a crisis was coming at them like a freight train, didn’t want to be criticized as part of the “out-of-control football culture.”

The $100,000 a month consultants (and there have been several) didn’t want to jeopardize their paychecks by telling their clients anything that might upset them.

The acting Athletic Director didn’t want to hear and wouldn’t tolerate even the mention of his former coach.

Judge Louis Freeh conducted an investigation without interviewing any of the key participants, selectively leaked misleading emails, and drew conclusions unsupported by facts or evidence.

And the second-banana administrator who became a Peter-principal President has been waving a white flag from Old Main’s tower every day that he has been in office.

And so there was no one at the University speaking this simple truth:

Joe Paterno proved over 61 years of service that he was an honest, honorable man. He played by the rules, won football games, recruited quality kids, taught them well, made sure they went to class, disciplined them when necessary, and was proud of them when they graduated and went on to useful, productive lives. He helped to build Penn State into one of America’s great Universities.

Joe Paterno was not a saint. He didn’t run the University. He didn’t like Jerry Sandusky and didn’t want him on campus and he especially didn’t want young children at the athletic facilities. He had told Sandusky when he fired him, that being a football coach was a full-time job and except for time spent with his family, there really wasn’t time left for anything else. When the President of the University and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees came to talk to him after a 3-9 season, he told them his job was to coach the football team and theirs was to run the University. When a graduate student told him he had seen something inappropriate in the showers, he referred to the rule book and reported it. When he found out a decade later that Sandusky was finally being accused of much worse than bad judgement and “horseplay” he grieved for the victims and admitted that with the benefit of hindsight he wished he had done more.

The Board of Trustees has spent, at last count, $15 million trying to convince us that it is time to forget the past and move on to a brighter future. But they are finding a stubborn streak running through 600,000 Alumni and countless more Pennsylvanians who grew up believing in the man who taught and lived Success with Honor.

And now, finally, we are going to get some unvarnished truth.

Joe knew 2011 would be his last season. Age and health had finally caught up to his indomitable will. He had quietly negotiated three-year severance packages for his loyal staff and a retirement plan for himself and Sue.

And he invited Joe Posnanski, a respected Sports Illustrated writer to literally spend a year at his side with unfettered access and no preconditions. Of course, neither knew at the time, what was coming.

That book “Paterno” will be available tomorrow. I was not one of the favored few who got an advance copy. But I know the story it will tell. And I hope that everyone who has participated in the building up and tearing down of the Strawman named Joe will spend some time actually getting to know the man himself.

The real Joe Paterno wasn’t perfect (he would have been the last to claim perfection). But he was no Strawman. Let’s see if his critics can handle the truth. I know his friends can.

22 thoughts on “The building up and tearing down of a Strawman named Joe

  1. My stubborn streak refuses to rest until the honor Joe deserves has been restored and those trustees who have turned their backs on The University are replaced. Thanks once again Gary!

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  2. Thank you for writing this. The people who know me best know I am an eternal optimist.And I do still beleive with all my heart that ” the unvarnished truth” will come out and justice will prevail. It will require the efforts of all of us to keep up the good fight in an intelligent civilized manner. Those so quick to condemn Coach Paterno with no real facts or experience in knowing the man have no real investment in this and may be just as likely to channel their hate and condemnation in another direction if the media switches gears…(which they may) ( there is so much more to this story) (and they are in the business of cashing in for as long as possible.) Not to belabor this.. But as I’ve said before…My Scottish Granny always told me ” The wheels of justice grind slow but fine. ” We need to be in this for the long haul !! Sorry to have rambled….And Thank you again !

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  3. AMEN! Thank you for saying it so clearly and so eloquently. Joe taught me to always be the bigger (wo)man, to always fight for what is right, to always do the right thing, to never settle and to always reach farther than you think you are capable of. I have always believed, that even in the darkest times, good guys do come out on top. I know that eventually, the truth will come out and there will be many with much to apologize for and many who will do right by Joe and Penn State! And until that time comes, WE will continue to be stubborn and to NOT give up this fight, because it is absolutely worth fighting. WE ARE….

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  4. This is the truth.Paterno did go by the book when McQueary told him about the shower incident.If anyone hid the truth it was Mc Queary and janitor B.Two cowards in my book for not confronting Sandusky man to man if they saw the abuse they claim.And taking those boys away from him right there at that exact time.If they did they would have been heroes and would haven’t lost their jobs.This article is the simple truth. Joe Paterno was a great man that has been ruined by the media’s deceptive reporting.

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  5. very well said, you aptly put my thoughts into words!!! Anyone who had the pleasure of meeting the man, even if for a short moment, knows that he was a good and just man.

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  6. Thank you, Gary. I am going on vacation September 6 – to North Carolina (which, as we now know, is home to a top flight university that cares about educating its football players – the University of North Carolina). I plan to wear some Penn State regalia, to invite comments. I hope you don’t mind if I use your ideas and commentary to respond to the Penn State (and JoePa) haters I know I will encounter.

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  7. You could bring crops to thousands of infertile acres with this load of fertilizer!! It’s just another in a long line of Penn State apologists trying to absolve their icon, their idol, their cult leader from ANY blame for letting Sandusky’s perfidy persist. Even if some of what you say were true and that Paterno didn’t run things at the University, even you apologists cannot maintain that he didn’t have control over the Lasch Football Building. Paterno let Sandusky skulk around the halls and showers of Lasch from 1998 until the breaking of the story in 2011. Why can’t the football worshipers get their heads around that? It was either a case of not wanting to threaten the golden goose of Penn State football OR he was as pathetic a manager of his area as Curley, Spanier, and Schultz have proven themselves to be. Which is it? Had they all made things public at the first sniff (as would have happened with ANY other person on campus) Paterno and the rest would have been worthy of the praise the Amen Corner heaps upon them. But they didn’t. They don’t deserve having their names on anything, nor do they deserve any statues in their “honor.” There’s plenty of blame to go around in this entire situation…including enough to paint Paterno in a very bad light. If you and the rest continue to pretend otherwise, I suggest the mascot of the school needs to be changed: the Penn State Ostriches!

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    1. Kenny, you are entitled to your opinion. I hesitated to publish it — not because of your criticism — but because of your name-calling and the disrespect you show to those who don’t share your view. Then I decided it was a perfect example of the “strawman” argument we’ve been hearing from so many ill-informed, holier-than-thou critics.

      The hobson’s choice you present is fallacious on both sides. The “golden goose” of Penn State football would certainly not have been threatened in any way by exposing a former assistant coach “at the first sniff”. The facts are clear that Sandusky’s behavior was reported to the police In 1998 and was investigated by the District Attorney and the DPW. Again in 2001, Mike McQueary’s accusation (vague as it was) was reported up the line to the University Park police and to the President of the University. Even at Sandusky’s trial, there was not enough evidence to convict him of this particular count. It was one of three in which he was found not guilty. In this country, you still need evidence to bring charges, not just a sniff. Sandusky’s charity was fully informed and chose to take no action.

      As head football Coach for 46 years, Joe Paterno’s management of his program speaks for itself. He won 75% of his games and graduated 85% of his players. His job description did not include custodial supervision of the showers at Lasch. As for allowing Sandusky to skulk around the halls and showers — both the flawed Freeh Report and Posnanski’s book are very clear that Joe didn’t want Sandusky or his Second Mile children on campus, but was over-ruled by the administration which had final say.

      I am most certainly not an apologist for Joe Paterno. Unlike you, I actually knew the man since his days as a young assistant coach. I outlined the simple truth in the Blog post. Re-read it and tell me which part you dispute or don’t understand.

      Gary Levitt
      PSU ’64

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      1. Gary, great reply to more of the hysteria from the”what if it was your child” crowd that wouldn’t know a fact from a fart. Then again, tearing down icons and people who do good things throughout their lives such as Paterno is blood sport in this country. Facts? Who needs facts? Hang everyone! It’s fun for the entire family!

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        1. Perfect response Tim — I thought the same thing — tearing down good people is the favorite pastime of many in this country because so few people do anything worthwhile or noteworthy in their own pathetic lives, they love seeing the truly good and honorable trashed because it makes them feel better about themselves.

          A lot of the media fuel was built on the fact that jealousy is an easy emotion to play on. Joe was known for having a clean, well run program that graduated its players and if you think that didn’t create hatred in the hearts of many at other schools including the presidents as well as the fans, then no one was paying attention.

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    2. It never fails to surprise me the venom with which people write these posts with so little grasp of the actual facts of this case. While everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion, you don’t seem to have an understanding of the events that played out in ’98 or ’01. Your post contains no facts – just speculation and name-calling. Perhaps if you spent less time writing vitriolic posts on a subject you don’t understand and actually read any one of the numerous documents out there related to this case, you might gain an understanding of this subject (which you so badly want to comment on). Isn’t it ironic that the people who have read and understand the facts are being called ostriches while the ones who mindlessly believe whatever a self-serving media dishes out imagine themselves to be so enlightened?

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    3. Thank Mr. Austin for your taking time to share views; it should come as no surprise that we have heard them all before. Perhaps at some point you will come to understand that your context is wrong, your stereotypes are wrong, your facts are wrong, and so thus your conclusions are also wrong. Otherwise Sir, with your permission-or not-we will continue with the mission we are on.

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  8. The challenge is that Mr. Paterno never said “I am sorry,” for what he failed to do. He used all the words like this or similar to this, but not “I am sorry,” because that would admit responsibility. To the end, he failed to acknowledge the responsibility, not just that an educator or college leader would have, but that any decent human being should have had. Mr. Paterno’s life work was the education of CHILDREN. This was not a man who was not around young people, who had some technical job removed from such aspects of life, who did not understand the importance of setting an EXAMPLE and protecting young people. This is someone who knew this as well as anyone we could imagine. HIS failure to act is not setting him up as “Mother Theresa.” That is simply not true. It is simply expecting him to live up to the very standards that we believed he would have expected others to live by, and the example that he sought to set. There is a lot of talk about responsibility with PS4RS, but really it is criticism of the BOT and anyone critical of Paterno, based on seeking to defend the PRIDE towards Mr. Paterno’s legacy, PRIDE towards the PSU football program, and PRIDE towards PSU’s reputation. Pride goeth before the fall, and if we have all see this most painful lesson in this old saying, based on the Biblical verse. In fact, most major religions view PRIDE as a sin, but too many at PSU cling to PRIDE as if it was a religion. Surely, it is time to move beyond PRIDE, and actually accept RESPONSIBILITY. If PS4RS wants to be about responsibility, lets start here with ourselves, with the football program, with the university, and with the PSU community of students and alumni. Let us try to remember the words of our Alma Mater “may no act of ours bring shame,” and for once accept RESPONSIBILITY, say “I am sorry,” and move on.

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    1. I hope you are going to hold the governor of PA, the administrators of the Second Mile, the Dept. of Public Welfare, the social worker who closed his file when Gricar closed his in 1998. and the Centre County DAs office to the same “standard” that you want to hold Paterno. Paterno so far is the only one who expressed regret that he hadn’t done more which is a big deal since he was the ONLY one who did something — he reported it to the people in the administration who should have acted.

      It’s so easy to climb on your high horse and point fingers and KNOW what you would have done in a similar circumstance — frankly Paterno did what he was supposed to do — he reported it to the people in charge of handling that sort of thing.

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  9. Jeffrey, where are you basing your assumption that Joe Paterno never apologized for the Second Mile Scandal? If you have been following the news for the past 10 months, you would realize that Joe was the only individual who stepped up and admitted that “this was the greatest sorrow of his life” and that “with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he could have done more.” (I may be paraphrasing, but it’s pretty close to his actual quotes.)

    Since Joe Paterno passed away, unfortunately, there has been numerous attacks on Penn State from our own BOT, politicians, media, NCAA, etc. Saying you’re sorry and moving on was the motto adopted by our current president (Erickson) and it has created horrific consequences (i.e. the flawed Freeh report with egregious sanctions). The biggest mistake we can make as a PSU community is to “move forward” without understanding why we are here in the first place. Searching for the truth is a complicated process, and cannot simply be explained by stating that Penn State had too much pride.

    Although it might be speculation on my part, I believe that Penn State will lead the way and dismantle the NCAA (in terms of its current frame work). The road to vindication/exoneration may be long and rocky, but it’s worth the journey. I am eagerly awaiting for the day when the NCAA formally denies the appeals to the Paterno Family, former players and perhaps even the select brave BOT members (if they choose to move forward with their appeal). Penn State’s federal lawsuits will bring to light the NCAA corruption (and tangentially, the Second Mile and our own BOT complicity/corruption.)

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  10. Jeffrey, a person in your position should be especially careful to get your facts right before lecturing others.

    This is what Joe Paterno actually said on November 9th:

    “I’m absolutely devastated by the developments in this case. I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief … this is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

    We know now that these were the words of a dying man. I don’t know how much clearer he could have been.

    It is possible to take pride in the achievements of Penn Stare and Penn Staters without being arrogant. And it is possible to be sngry at Jerry Sandusky for betraying the trust so many placed in him and to feel anguish for his victims, while abhorring the scapegoating of a man who gave so much to so many of us.

    Since you quote the bible, you might read the Book of Job. It is a timeless lesson in the error of rushing to judgement. And if you read the the Proverbs of King Solomon in their original Hebrew, you would understand that a far better translation is “arrogance” rather than “pride.”

    Before Joe died, he told his family to follow the truth wherever it leads and to protect the honor and integrity of the University. As members of his extended family we intend to do exactly that. We will work hard to replace incompetent leaders with competent ones, so that our children and grandchildren can share the pride we have always felt in being Penn Staters.

    If you consider that a sin, I feel a little sorry for you. Each to his own.

    May our lives but swell thy fame . . .

    Gary Levitt ’64

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  11. Thanks Gary — this is absolutely true. We have “Paterno” and you can’t read a page of the book and not see that Joe was a fine, honorable man his entire life. It is despicable to know that the BOT not only allowed the media to rip him to shreds, they furthered it by financing the Freeh Report whose mission it was to hang this mess around Joe’s neck.
    Not one of them including Erickson went to see him as he lay dying, not one of them went to his service — NEVER NEVER can we forget what this craven group did to him and our university.

    If I were at the BOT retreat today, I would hand each of them a mirror and then ask them to look at it in order to see a reflection of cowardice and evil because of what they have done. Then I’d do a reading of the Freeh Report with stops along the way to make them discuss sections of it — esp. the parts in which Freeh jumps the shark and makes tenuous connections and assumptions and then calls them “fact and truth.”

    We cannot allow this group of cynical, miserable excuses to continue to allow our university to be dragged down by the hideous criminality of one man that somehow contorted into being the responsibility of the football coach and the football program and then was transformed by Mark Emmert of the NCAA to declaring Penn State a football-dominated culture. .

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  12. Gary your hard work and careful words gives us hope.

    When Joe Paterno was relieved of his duties as head coach, Tom Bradley was named as the interim head coach. The Board of Trustees or the University made the point that the position was too important to make Bradley the head coach without conducting a nation wide search. When Graham Spannier resigned, Rodney Erickson was named interim President of the University. In less than one week Mr. Erickson’s position was made permanent. The reason given was that it was too important in these times to have an ‘interim’ President run the University. Dr. Erickson was the Executive Vice President and Provost. According to Erickson’s own resumé he was responsible for student welfare and served as chief executive officer in the President’s absence and was centrally involved in most operations of the University. Mr. Erickson’s tenure as Provost stated in 1999.

    How did the Executive V P and Provost for the full time period of the alleged cover-up miss being scrutinized? If he did all his resumé implies , how could he not know something about this case. If he did not know anything about this case after being the Executive V P and Provost for thirteen years, should he be the President to lead us out of this crises?

    Another issue that may exist regarding Erickson and the (November 9th) Board of Trustees is a perceived bias against athletics. Upon assuming the Presidency, Rodney Erickson said he wanted to make Penn State an outstanding research institution. Many thought it was.

    The Board of Trustees wasted very little time in disposing of Joe Paterno after the Sandusky indictment was made public. It appeared from my point of view that they could not waste the opportunity to eliminate their nemesis. There appears to have been little concern for what guilt their actions would imply and project on the athletic department in general or football specifically with their rush to judgement and sentence.

    If one were to believe that Universities could have interdepartmental rivalries or inferiority complexes, one may surmise that rolling over and letting the NCAA stomp on the football program was a gift. Some may think now with football on its death bed the rest of the University will be recognized as a true center of higher education. The rush to accept the set of sanctions by the NCAA may let external forces play into internal turf wars. Sadly Penn State loses all around.

    Penn State has achieved an envious period of growth during Paterno’s tenure. Success in academics, success in research, success in sports with high visibility. Crushing this success will not rectify Sandusky’s treatment of ten boys.

    What has been forgotten is that Sandusky was a charming, engaging chap, coach and promoter. Many kids found his football camps to be great learning experiences. The Second Mile was a grand experience for countless number of youths. This, not to mention the celebrities that signed on as sponsors or attended fund raising events. Sandusky was a successful people person. A lot of people were fooled. As I understand it Jerry kept his pants on in public. It took the Governor of Pennsylvania three years while he was the Attorney General to find enough evidence so the next Attorney General could finish the job and prosecute Sandusky. Normally in cases of child abuse prosecutors do not wait for Grand Juries to be convened before they take steps to isolate the abuser from the children.

    I agree with Joel Myer about the evils of the NCAA but there are some people closer that are also culpable of poor judgement and motives.

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