Last week, the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal was back in the news, bringing Penn State and its late football coach Joe Paterno with it. The stories were ugly: four separate accusations that Paterno and/or assistant coaches/administrators allegedly knew of Sandusky’s acts as early as 1976. It all stemmed from a paragraph in a court order in a civil suit between Penn State and one of its insurers.
Four-and-a-half years after Sandusky was first arrested, Paterno was fired and Penn State was rocked, here was an another reverberation, proof that just as it is for victims of sexual abuse, this stuff doesn’t ever conveniently end.
Rather than focusing on the administration's role in not just the original events but in igniting this specific media frenzy, university president Eric Barron instead pathetically tried to shift the blame while lamenting that the poor, poor school and its old coach were being dragged though the mud.
“I am appalled by the rumor, innuendo and rush to judgment that have accompanied the media stories surrounding these allegations,” said Barron, who was hired in 2014, long after the dismissal of president Graham Spanier, who was around during the scandal and still faces criminal charges for his role in it. “All too often in our society, people are convicted in the court of public opinion, only to find a different outcome when all the facts are presented.”
There are understandable reasons for Penn State to be frustrated, especially with the lack of perspective offered by the news media. Some reports took allegations and turned them into full and unquestioned guilt.
The story wasn’t that simple. How it played out was predictable though. That’s how parts of traditional and social media have always worked. Context is a rarity.
It’s why, if merely from a public relations perspective, being accused of such heinous acts is best avoided, let alone when your defense boils down to “because details are scarce, you can’t completely prove it.” While the allegations mentioned in the court order lack the kind of detail that should result in an immediate conclusion of guilt, they also lack the kind of detail that should result in an immediate conclusion of innocence, too. It’s not a corner you want to fight from.
It stands to reason that Penn State once understood all of this.
The school initially chose to settle so many Sandusky abuse cases in part because the monetary loss of paying victims – nearly $100 million in cases dating back to 1971 – in sealed decisions was worth stopping the slow churn of horrific details affecting enrollment, endowment and reputation.
Some civil cases were rejected for lack of plausibility but for the most part Penn State settled, and not just with money. It settled knowing this precluded vehemently investigating and defending every point of every complaint. That was part of the deal also.
Penn State willingly and purposefully gave that right up.
Eric Barron is a university president so it stands to reason that he understands this. That’s what makes his comments Sunday so regrettable.
Rather than accept reality, he instead suggested that some of these victims might not actually be victims via broad and non-specific aspersions on their claims. It was a toss of red meat to those who view Penn State and Paterno as aggrieved parties here.
“First, the allegations related to Penn State are simply not established fact,” he wrote. “The two allegations related to knowledge by Coach Paterno are unsubstantiated and unsupported by any evidence other than a claim by an alleged victim. They date from the 1970s. Coach Paterno is not alive to refute them. His family has denied them.”
Again, Penn State chose to not pursue a legal course to attempt to establish facts and fight the charges. It has to live with it now. Barron’s defense is ridiculous. That Paterno is dead is not the fault, nor the burden, of the victims. That his family denied anything is immaterial, such a claim doesn’t even rise to the level of hearsay that would immediately be deemed inadmissible in court.
This is ignorant and inflammatory – the stuff of comments sections. Only this time it’s from a university president.
With nearly three-dozen cases, some were always going to be stronger than others. Some may have even been weak or questionable. Some may have been fabricated. Common sense tells us that.
Criminal trials don’t result in 100 percent agreement either. There is a pool of Penn State fans dedicated to the idea that Sandusky is innocent – just a harmless old chaste pedophile they argue – even after being convicted on 45 counts and so far losing every post-conviction appeal. That’s America.
Once Penn State chose to settle a specific civil claim it knew it would cause the public to consider it an admission of some measure of guilt. Perhaps there is even a full measure of guilt. No one knows because the particulars are under seal, in part because Penn State wanted to keep the details quiet and in part because the victims understandably wanted to remain unnamed.
Then there is this that Barron failed to mention: the only reason this story sprung back up is because Penn State got cheap and abandoned the plan that had effectively kept the scandal relatively quiet the last few years.
Instead of just paying the settlements, it tried to make an insurance company pay, even though Penn State boasts a $4.6 billion operating budget and a $3.64 billion endowment.
When the insurance agency balked though, arguing that the school’s culpability was so great it disqualified the policy, Penn State should’ve backed down. Instead it sued.
Once it chose that path, it risked exactly what occurred: a Philadelphia judge referencing the four new allegations, and, running counter to Barron’s argument, giving those and other settlements credibility – “a series of heinous crimes perpetuated against a multitude of children over a 40-year period,” Judge Gary Glazer wrote.
Once that court order became public, the story exploded just as anyone expected it would.
So by arguing over the bill, the silence Penn State originally, and successfully, bought was gone.
Eric Barron can play the blame game against traditional and social media, he can throw doubting glances at the victims his school paid and he can play the woe-is-us card. Some in the Penn State flock will certainly buy it.
It’s all a dodge though. Barron wasn’t around when the scandal began, but he’s the one who didn’t protect Penn State the last two years by getting the lawsuit against the insurance company dropped, thus ending the university’s exposure to the public relations disaster he is now lamenting. No lawsuit, no court order … and no one’s talking Sandusky and Paterno right now.
As Barron has learned, you can try to deflect as much as possible, but sadly with cases like this, the core issue never really goes away. Just ask any of Sandusky’s victims.