About 9:30 a.m.Thursday, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins downloaded the Freeh report examining Penn State’s handling of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse. She immediately skipped to the section about a 1998 allegation and saw emails between administrators noting that former football coach Joe Paterno was keeping track of the investigation he had claimed to know nothing about.
The first sentence of her column came quickly: “Joe Paterno was a liar, there’s no doubt about that now.”
The thought that became the last paragraph came pretty early, too:
In asking how a paragon of virtue could have behaved like such a thoroughly bad guy, the only available answer is that Paterno fell prey to the single most corrosive sin in sports: the belief that winning on the field makes you better and more important than other people.
Between those sentences is a blistering, damning assessment of Paterno, written by one of the few journalists in a position to contrast the Freeh report with the coach’s own account.
“Nobody knew,” he said.
Never heard a rumor?
“I never heard a thing,” he said.
He heard everything.
“If Jerry’s guilty, nobody found out till after several incidents.”
Not a whisper? How is that possible?
It’s a powerful indictment, especially coming from the same person who urged people in November, “Try to forgive Joe Paterno,” noting that acquaintance molesters like Sandusky are skilled at fooling even people close to them. That column may have been the reason Paterno sought Jenkins out for an interview, conducted eight days before he died.
It was a delicate situation; Paterno was physically weak and surrounded by family, a lawyer and a media advisor. But Jenkins asked him “clear, point-blank questions,” including four or five different efforts to get at what he knew about this 1998 incident. “He answered consistently every time: ‘I had no inkling,’ ” she told me by phone.
Some of Paterno’s answers seemed truthful, such as when he expressed his distress and confusion about what Sandusky stood accused of. “And then there were moments … where I felt he was disingenuous,” she said.
The purpose of that story was not to tell readers what sounded suspicious; it was to get Paterno’s account, “to see if it would stand up to the scrutiny of an ongoing investigation.”
On Thursday, she immediately concluded, it didn’t. So she called her editor and told him, “I think I’ve got to write that he lied.” Her editor agreed, but they decided that she should go through the entire report and her interview transcription to make sure she was on solid ground. That process of comparing the two, she said, is what led to the structure of the column.
I read a sense of betrayal in it, and Jenkins said others have asked her if she’s outraged or angry at being lied to. She’s not.
She described the column as a “cold-eyed” account, a “forensic realization: He lied.” Not to her, she said, but to the victims and their families. “It’s a public lie.”
As a journalist in her position, “it’s forensically your job to print that.”
She does “feel some sensitivity” to Paterno’s family, considering they invited her into their home for an interview that at one point took place around the kitchen table, with cornbread and mashed potatoes. “Whatever sensitivity I feel to his family, I feel a greater sensitivity to the five boys who were molested after 1998.”
She did decide to remove one portion of the column from the print edition. (It’s gone from the website as well.) Towards the end, she wrote that “everything else about Paterno must now be questioned.” She followed that with a line wondering whether Paterno’s modest house was part of his carefully constructed image, considering that he owned a multimillion dollar beach house in New Jersey.
She wanted to address the larger issue of what Paterno’s dishonesty meant for his legacy. “When you have that image and you cultivate it for so many years and you are then caught in a foundational lie, it provokes sportswriters like me to go back and say, ‘Was he really so modest? Who was he, really?’ ”
Thursday night, she learned that Paterno had bought the house for $380,000 in 1984. Still a lot of money at the time, but not quite so extravagant, and perhaps unfair to mention. So the line was deleted.
The change reflects Jenkins’ nuanced view of Paterno, a complex man who was more upstanding than many of his competitors. Still, she quickly follows that by saying that he fell short in the “single-most important moral decision of his career.”
“He didn’t protect the adolescents that became 18-year-olds who then go to Penn State,” she said. “He didn’t protect the flesh and blood of the young men that he professed to care about so much for 61 years. I remain baffled that Joe Paterno lost sight, somehow, of the fact that boys become men.”