Penn State Scandal: A Plausible Scenario Where the Media Has It All Wrong

John ZieglerContributor INovember 16, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 12:   A Penn State fan carries a 'Say it ain't so' sign outside Beaver Stadium after the Penn State vs. Nebraska NCAA football game in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal on November 12, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania.  Penn State lost their final home game 17-14 to Nebraska. Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno was fired amid allegations that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was involved with child sex abuse.   (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images

At this point, being perceived as defending Jerry Sandusky or even Joe Paterno is roughly about as ill-advised as appearing to say anything positive about Adolf Hitler. Heck, even Hall of Famer Franco Harris lost an endorsement (from a casino in Pittsburgh no less!) simply for saying he didn’t think Paterno should have been fired.

There are even reports that Paterno’s on-campus statue may be taken down over Thanksgiving break.

Whenever there is this much pressure to accept one side of a highly controversial story, I get inherently nervous. The conventional wisdom in this age where the news media no longer deserves to be trusted is often wrong, and I think it is possible that this is the situation with regard to the Penn State scandal.

Despite what you have probably heard, there is indeed a plausible scenario where Paterno has been largely railroaded and where Sandusky may not be quite the monster you currently think that he is.

Before I outline that scenario, I would like to lay out a few facts that, based on the many communications I have had with people about this scandal, appear to have been almost totally lost.

They are:

Contrary to popular misperception, Sandusky was not on the Penn State coaching staff when the infamous 2002 rape episode allegedly occurred ,and one of the officials Joe Paterno immediately reported to when he heard of it was the person in charge of the campus police..


As best we can tell from the grand jury report, only ONE of the victims (No. 1) has testified about actual sexual acts that Sandusky engaged in, and these acts apparently took place long after Sandusky was no longer a Penn State employee.

The vast majority of the victims listed in the grand jury report do not allege actual sex acts taking place, but rather inappropriate touching which made them feel uncomfortable.

Since the story exploded, many more victims have allegedly come forward, but we have no idea what the nature of their allegations are, and, despite the massive media coverage and the fact that anyone of them could become instantly famous, not one has done a TV interview as of yet.

Several former kids from the Second Mile program have come forward to do media interviews saying they felt uncomfortable around Sandusky, but none has alleged any actual crimes took place.

The victims from the 2000 “oral sex” episode and the 2002 “rape” event are not even known to the authorities. The only witness to the 2000 event has dementia, and the 2002 witness acknowledges that a large part of his perception of what he saw was shaped by what he heard before seeing anything.

According to Sandusky’s attorney, the 2002 victim may have been found and now claims that he was not raped by the former coach.



The 1998 “shower” event, which Sandusky allegedly admitted to in a disputed conversation with the victim’s mother, is not an allegation of overt sexual abuse, and the authorities concluded that there was not nearly enough evidence to prosecute.

Now, to be perfectly clear, I am NOT saying that Jerry Sandusky is innocent or even that he will eventually found to be not guilty in a court of law (though I am also in the small minority who believes that his bizarre interview with Bob Costas could actually help his case).

What I am saying is that there is more than even information upon which to build a plausible scenario that is light years away from the “reality” which has already been cemented in much of the public’s consciousness by a news media with no patience to just let all the facts come out.

To begin with, what if we learn that Joe Paterno heard of the vague allegations which others at the university became aware of in 1998 and decided to effectively fire Jerry Sandusky?

Sandusky, of course, retired at the relatively young age of 55 the following year, and there is testimony that Sandusky was told before then by Paterno that he “would never be the head coach at Penn State.”

Why is it not at least plausible that Paterno actually took the strongest action anyone ever did before the indictments to try to stop Sandusky?

Most people I speak to seem to think that, assuming that the early retirement was linked to the allegations, this somehow is an indictment of Paterno because it “proves” he knew Sandusky was a grave danger to kids and yet did nothing at that time to keep him away from young boys.


I believe an equally (if not more so) plausible interpretation of those events was that, based on what he likely knew at the time, Paterno was actually going way beyond the call of duty and deserves at least some credit for an act of courage.

Here is where details and context (much of which has been completely lost in the blizzard of sensationalistic media coverage) are everything.

You have to understand that as of 1998, the allegations against Sandusky (showering with boys with possible physical contact) were clearly disturbing, but they were not criminal. Against a “normal” person, there probably would have been far less hesitation to do more, but Sandusky had two critical elements going for him which made an aggressive pursuit of his “problem” far more difficult.

First, he was a celebrated football coach and a local hero. Like it or not, the threshold for accusing a prominent/popular person is far higher than for someone else because the damage/implications of a false charge are also greater.

Secondly, his founding of the Second Mile program for at risk kids gave him intrinsic plausible deniability regarding any remotely ambiguous allegations.

After all, this was a guy who devoted much of his life to kids. He is around them all the time. Strange situations can be theoretically taken out of context. Maybe he was just getting too comfortable with them given his constant contact with them.

Not to mention, if you accuse Sandusky, you are also risking bringing down what is, by all accounts, an organization which has helped thousands of disadvantaged children.


Despite this backdrop, it certainly seems as if Paterno essentially fired Sandusky in 1999, but did so in a way which would allow all parties to move on. His program would not be damaged, a plausibly innocent man would not have his reputation destroyed and the Second Mile could go on with its good works.

To those who say that Paterno should have done more than just “fire” Sandusky and that giving him access to the facilities was a fatal mistake, that assertion is not remotely fair given what it is likely Paterno knew (or could have known) back in 1999.

At that point, there was a lot of smoke, but there was not yet any real fire, at least not enough to go after a man of Sandusky’s stature. As for the generous retirement perks that Sandusky got when Paterno may have “fired” him, the guy had been an exemplary player/coach at Penn State for over 30 years. Paterno had to throw him some sort of bone in order to get him to retire without the whole thing blowing up.

When Paterno said in his written retirement statement, which many people have wrongly interpreted as an admission of guilt, that he “wish he had done more” to stop Sandusky, I believe he may be referring at least as much to 1999 as he was to 2002 (when, it is important to point out, Sandusky was no longer a Penn State coach and, at least in Paterno’s mind, someone whom he had already gotten rid of). But that recognition is based solely on hindsight that may be even stronger than 20/20.

As for the heinous 2002 allegation, the details and context are once again everything.

If Paterno was told by his then-graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, that he was positive that he saw Sandusky rape a 10-year-old boy and Paterno “only” went to his superior as well as the person who was in charge of the campus police while never again following up, then his firing is justified.


If it turns out that Paterno pressured his “superiors” to cover the whole thing up (which makes no sense to me because he easily could have killed the story with him), then his statute and name on the library at Penn State should be taken down and he should be sued by the victims.

However, there is absolutely no current evidence that any of that is actually true.

Instead, Paterno testified (and was found credible by the same grand jury which issued two perjury indictments) that he was told a far more vague story of interaction in a shower than the rape account which McQueary told the grand jury.

Not only is there no current evidence that Paterno knew a “rape” had occurred, but there is at least some reason to question McQueary’s testimony.

McQueary says he heard slapping sounds which sounded like sex, and then he saw the boy up against the wall with Sandusky behind him. Obviously, there is no good explanation for a grown man being naked and physically close to a naked boy in a shower, but it is not yet clear a rape or sex act took place.

I say this because Sandusky told Costas that he was engaged in towel slapping with the boy and that the boy was sliding around the shower before Sandusky grabbed him from behind. Again, this all sounds like the worst excuse ever, and the actions are at best totally inappropriate, but there is a plausible scenario where there could be a misunderstanding here.


Couldn’t what McQueary thought he heard have heavily influenced what he then thought he saw when he turned that corner? Couldn’t that sound have been as a result of horse play rather than rape?

Ordinarily, if we had an actual accuser who was willing to say that a rape did take place I would say such an interpretation of events would be ridiculous, but such an accuser does not currently exist.

Even more potentially alarming is the claim that this accuser has been found (if McQueary really did “break up” the event as he now apparently claims, why was the boy never identified to anyone?) and now says that the event as described by McQueary never happened that way.

While it is obviously still very possible that Sandusky did rape a boy in 2002, we simply don’t know that yet. And despite this reality, it is based almost entirely on the alleged inaction in response to that alleged event that Joe Paterno, after 61 years of spectacular service to Penn State, was fired in humiliating fashion after already offering to resign.

For those who say it is silly to overanalyze each individual Sandusky allegation because it will always be theoretically possible to raise some sort of doubt, I ask you to consider a plausible alternative narrative to Sandusky being the worst person on the planet.

What if Sandusky was telling the truth is his universally panned interview with Costas? He obviously said many things that he had to know were going to make him look horrible, so clearly, at least some of what he said had to have credibility, right?


What if Sandusky is attracted to young boys (even his denial of this to Costas seemed like more of an admission) but knows that to act on those desires is wrong? What if he has created in his mind his own rules on where the “line” is as he fights to prevent his evil addiction from overtaking him (his admission that he touches boys legs without the intent of sexual arousal was maybe the most important part of the interview) and while he goes way beyond acceptable social norms, he never actually crossed those lines into “sexual” contact, at least while he was employed at Penn State?

What if, for lack of a better analogy, Sandusky was like a married man in a strip club?

As of this moment, believe it or not, there are apparently only two people whose current testimony would totally contradict this version of events: victim No. 1 and Mike McQueary.

Are they both lying or somehow mistaken? Probably not.

But considering the unprecedented level of certitude and outrage in the media and the public regarding this scandal, it is at least important to note that the current evidence simply doesn’t support the conventional wisdom that there is only one side to this story.

I must admit, that while I think it is possible that a grave injustice has been done to Paterno here (and to a much much lesser extent to Sandusky), the fact that Paterno is yet to confront the vague “allegations” against him is perhaps the best evidence that my concerns that a miscarriage of justice is occurring are probably unfounded.

Other than fear over what an angry and confused 84-year-old man might say, I simply cannot come up with a good reason for why we have heard so little of substance from the Paterno camp. They have essentially sat on the sidelines and allowed his reputation to be destroyed even though they could easily set up an incredibly sympathetic interview with almost any big-name TV personality.

If they are somehow concerned about legal jeopardy (that alone would be more than troubling), then why not at least release a statement detailing Paterno’s rebuttal? The fact that nothing like this has happened yet saps me of enough confidence to fully make the case on his behalf.

However, it should at least still be acknowledged that it is still more than theoretically possible that what is happening here is not just a tragedy for Sandusky’s victims, but also for fairness, justice and truth.