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It Is Impossible to Know Who in Sports We Can Trust

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterDecember 21, 2011

AP Photo
AP Photo

It takes an enormous ego to be a sports columnist. To watch a game that thousands, perhaps millions, of other people watched just as closely as you and to give your take on those events with such conviction and authority that you can set a tone for how your readers—and an entire city—will react to what they saw.

Being a columnist is not easy. The ability to write about a day's events with the right combination of visceral reaction and poetic license is what differentiates great writers from the rest of us. 

Bill Conlin was one of the great voices in Philadelphia sports for decades, in large part because he seemed to always have that right combination. We would all watch a game, form our opinions, and the next morning Conlin would explain what we really saw.

As he's gotten older, Conlin has become increasingly detached from his former post as the authority of Philadelphia's sports opinions—especially the Phillies—but he has always managed to fill the pages of the Philadelphia Daily News with stories that nobody else could ever imagine.

That is precisely what makes yesterday's news that Conlin has retired from the Daily News in the wake of child molestation charges so unimaginable.

Conlin allegedly molested at least four children between the ages of seven and 12, back in the 1970s. From Nancy Phillips of the Philadelphia Inquirer—the Daily News' sister paper—who broke the story:

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"This is a tragedy," said Kelley Blanchet, a niece of Conlin's who said he molested her when she was a child. "People have kept his secret. It's not just the victims, it's the victims' families. There were so many people who knew about this and did nothing."

The report has names, direct quotes and as much "evidence" as you could expect for something that happened more than 30 years ago. The situation is awful. Sadly, developments like this have become increasingly more plausible.

Via Philly.com
Via Philly.com

This Conlin story is news in 2011 because Jerry Sandusky is finally going to trial for being a monster for things he allegedly did to children many years ago. Bernie Fine is no longer a basketball coach at Syracuse—not because of the terrible things he also (allegedly) did many years ago, but because his accusers had the courage to finally stand up after seeing those in the Sandusky case do the same.

In the Inquirer story, Conlin's niece, now an Atlantic City prosecutor, said she only started telling other family members about her alleged abuse after hearing Conlin talk about his grandchildren at his wife's funeral in 2009, thinking that others in the family should know in case Conlin was abusing more of his own relatives.

After she found out the abuse had allegedly happened to others, steps were taken to make sure he was held accountable.

They went public with the Conlin story in light of the Sandusky's arrest because, like with anyone who has been abused, the Sandusky story brought up painful memories of their own horrific situation.

More from Phillips:

They also said they wanted to bring attention to the shortcomings of the statute of limitations on sex crimes, which bars prosecution in their cases because their parents did not call police when the abuse occurred years ago. In several cases, the parents corroborated the accounts, and one - Conlin's brother-in-law - said the writer broke down in tears and insisted he had only touched the girl's leg.

Prosecutors in Gloucester County who took videotaped statements from the four last year say they could do nothing because assaults that occurred before 1996 fall outside the statute of limitations.

"We would love to see justice in this case," Detective Stacie Lick of the Prosecutor's Office wrote in an e-mail to one of the women last month. "So many people have been victimized by this man, but our hands are tied by the law, which does not let us prosecute."  

The details of the Inquirer story are harrowing, most notably because in this case, most of the parents reportedly knew what had happened to their kids at the time and never called the police. One mother, Barbara Healey, recalled talking to her son, Kevin, about how Conlin had allegedly molested him while he was on a sleepover with Conlin's son. She told the boy not to tell his father and said he wasn't allowed to return to Conlin's home.

But she let her daughter go to the house to play with Conlin's other son because "I thought he was just interested in boys."

Years later, she learned that Conlin had (allegedly) molested her daughter, too. It wasn't until the same happened to another neighborhood girl that Healey and the other mothers decided to have one of their husbands confront Conlin. Again, none of this was reported to the authorities and two of the three girls' fathers were not told because the mothers thought, at the time, the fathers might physically harm Conlin.

Phillips quoted one of the alleged victims who declined to be named: "In today's world, things might have been handled differently, but that's hindsight, and we are willing to live with it."

It's sickening, as a parent of young children, to think that people would react that way. As a human being, it's disgusting to think a story like this could be swept under the rug and a predator could be allowed to lurk in the shadows for years without anyone doing anything about it.

It's sickening.

Via Baseball Hall of Fame
Via Baseball Hall of Fame

And yet, it's confusing. For decades this man was an authority in the newspaper…in the city. Conlin is a legend in Philadelphia.

It comes with immense confusion and consternation to read Conlin's name in an article like this—to suddenly have this new opinion of him after so many columns with his byline helping to shape the city's opinions of others.

How could a man who was so uniquely able to weave a story that adeptly threads the likes of Robin Roberts to Robert Person be, all along, such a terrible person himself?

How is that possible?

There's an irrational sense of power that grows within oneself when he is his own authority. Conlin made himself an authority on the pages of the Daily News and ostensibly answered to no one. Conlin had carte blanche to write whatever he wanted and think whatever he thought.

It seems that, at some point in his life, he felt he had the authority do to whatever he wanted, too.

You need an ego as a columnist; you need to be authoritative and definitive. You need to have opinions and know you are right. Conlin can't be right anymore. He will never be right again and we're left wondering how we could ever trust our own opinions that his words helped shape over the years. This is not a good feeling.

Much like the aftermath of the Sandusky situation—which led to the Fine situation and now the Conlin situation—the end result is that people have become empowered to speak up against the monsters who have abused them. It's a wonder how many other stories will continue to come out.

How many other coaches or administrators or journalists were living—are living—these double lives? How many other parents didn't do enough for their kids or, even worse, didn't believe their kids when they found out about stories like this or, worse yet, were doing these things to their own families?

It's impossible to know whom to trust anymore.