An Open Letter to Keith Olbermann
Let me just begin by saying that I’m actually a bigger fan of yours than most of the world (which is, admittedly, a low bar). Like yourself, I enjoy buying and selling sports memorabilia — one time, in high school, I actually sold a baseball card to you on eBay (I was tickled when you gave me positive feedback and made note of my quick shipping time). We are both dues-paying members of the Society for American Baseball Research, and I have enjoyed many of your columns on the sabermetrics movement and appreciate your affinity for baseball history. Your take on Derek Jeter earlier this year made my stats-nerd heart swoon. Hell, I even enjoy some of your political takes from time to time. What I’m trying to say, Keith, is that every three or four years when you are inevitably fired or forced to resign from whatever network employs you at the time, I don’t celebrate your misfortune as much as the rest of the country.
One might assume, given our similar interests, that you and I could be friends one day. But that prospect seems inauspicious right now, because, well, I go to Penn State. In fact, as part of your “World’s Worst in Sports” segment last night, you read excerpts from my story about the hockey team’s 409 tribute and why people shouldn’t conflate support of Joe Paterno or Penn State with insensitivity to child abuse. You said that “at Penn State, football was more important than saving kids, and now we know football is still more important than saving kids and healing their wounds.” If you need a refresher — I don’t think you actually read the story because you conveniently ignored the part that actually synced with your argument — you can watch it again below (skip to 2:30).
Believe it or not, Keith, I understand your argument. Truly, I do. The only thing you know about what happened at Penn State can be written on the back of an index card. Mike McQueary saw Jerry Sandusky raping a boy in the shower, he told Joe Paterno what he saw, Paterno went and told the athletic director, university president, and another administrator about the incident, and the four of them maliciously conspired to cover up the incident out of fear of bad publicity for more than a decade. A report by a former FBI director confirmed all of this with a comprehensive investigation — clear as day, black and white — and even took it a step farther by implicating the football-crazed Penn State culture as the reason for the cover up. That is all your brain will allow you to know. Nothing else matters. Close the book, end of story. This is what you know to be true, and everyone who says otherwise is delusional or part of a football-crazed cult. After you ripped me last night on your show, you admitted that there was “no larger context” to any of this.
You know what, Keith? I’ll make a concession. If the few details that you think you know about the Sandusky scandal are all true, then everything you’ve said about Penn Staters who still support Joe Paterno is correct. If Paterno was involved in an intentional and calculated coverup to protect and enable a child predator, there are no words for that kind of evil. No man like that should ever be celebrated, despite the rest of the good he’s done in his life. I understand why, given the immalleable conclusions you’ve reached, you would accuse Penn Staters of being the most controverted bastards alive.
But here’s the thing, Keith. As much as black and white situations make for convenient two-minute television bits, this thing isn’t so black and white. Surely a Cornell graduate like yourself strives to have the intellect to understand an issue completely before taking such a rigid viewpoint on national television. Surely you know that Mike McQueary’s eyewitness testimony, which is the key element in determining what Paterno knew and when he knew it, has been all over the place each time he’s given it, and that the victim from this incident never came forward or testified at Sandusky’s trial. Surely you know that McQueary claims he was never sexually graphic with Paterno when he initially reported the incident, and that he actually played in golf tournaments for Sandusky’s charity multiple times after the shower incident. Of course, you know that the three administrators who handled the 2001 report actually informed the president of Sandusky’s charity about the incident, and that one of the administrators told attorney Wendell Courtney about McQueary’s report the day after it was received in a three-hour phone call (seems like a pretty lousy coverup). Given your diligent reporting, you know that Sandusky was investigated in 1998 by the campus police but the district attorney decided not to pursue charges due to lack of evidence. And yet, you know the 1998 incident was reported to both the Department of Public Welfare and Children and Youth Services (this is starting to seem like the worst executed coverup of all time). You know that the three Penn State administrators implicated in this case have yet to face trial and are being charged based on a handful of emails, neither of which states any degree of ill-intent or decision to cover up the incident.
You’ve been doing this sports reporting thing for 35 years, Keith, so of course you read the Freeh report. You read it, and as a rational human being, you realized that the Freeh report — save for a handful of ambiguous emails — included not one shred of new information about the case. You realized — again, I’m assuming you’re rational — that much of the information it used to condemn Penn State could be interpreted many different ways, and that it made significant factual leaps to reach its conclusion. You know, of course, that the Freeh investigative group didn’t interview a single person who was implicated except for Graham Spanier after the report had already been written; that several parts of the report have been proven to be objectively inaccurate; that the Freeh investigators actually colluded with the NCAA throughout the entire “independent” investigation; and that the report has come under so much criticism that the university president, who does not have a Penn State degree and was not at Penn State when this case blew up, is conducting a review of the entire report. You’ve surely been following the news — Louis Freeh, the man who Penn State paid $8 million to do this report, has been accused of corruption after his wife bought a $3 million beachfront penthouse from a business just nine days after Freeh exonerated that same businessman of wrongdoing. You know that virtually every report Freeh has produced in his post-FBI career has been criticized, if not totally refuted. Oh, speaking of the FBI, surely you know that Freeh is universally considered one of the worst directors in the history of the Bureau after botching the Richard Jewell case; covering up and burying documents for government officials after the Branch Davidian mess in Waco; misleading a federal judge in the Wan Ho Lee case; and failing to act on a memo sent to him by his assistant director that cited “significant and urgent” intelligence of “serious operational planning” for terrorism attacks by Islamic radicals linked to Osama bin Laden [source: The Intercept] months before the Sept. 11 attacks. Freeh was eventually forced to resign from the FBI. This is the man whose word you treat as sacrosanct.
Keith, I’m sure I’ve lost you by now. Again, I understand. I have two degrees from Penn State with a third on the way. You’ve said yourself that anybody who attended Penn State cannot possibly have a valid opinion about this matter. You made your name at MSNBC — clearly you know a thing or two about unbiased journalism. I am inherently biased, and there’s no escaping that. The unfortunate reality is that the people who know the most about the case — Penn State fans that follow new developments every day (not only when it’s convenient for moralizing) and know more than the abridged version of the facts written on the back of your index card — are almost entirely Penn Staters and easy for you to pigeonhole as part of a cult. I get that. But you’ve also said that “everybody not connected to Penn State” agrees with the coverup theory. There’s no denying that many people do — mostly thanks to incurious folks like you. You said in the clip that “all of your critics were personally or geographically connected to Penn State.” But please just humor me for a second, Keith. Let’s put our noggins together and see if your thesis holds up.
You know Bob Costas, of course. Just six days ago you had him on your show and introduced him as “one of the greatest sportscasters in human history.” He’s won more journalism awards than jobs you’ve been fired from. Here’s what he had to say about the Sandusky scandal just last year (source 1, source 2, source 3):
- “What much of America and what much of the media decided was the truth a couple of years ago is largely in doubt right now. There are so many areas of gray. There are so many areas of nuance that were passed over. There are so many questions as yet unanswered.”
- “I don’t buy the idea that [Paterno] was actively involved in the cover up.”
- “What Freeh did, it seems to me, was not only gather facts but he reached a conclusion which is at least debatable from those facts and then he assigned a motivation, not only to Curley and Schultz and Spanier, but he specifically assigned a very dark motivation to Joe Paterno, which seems like it might be quite a leap.”
- “[Some people say that Paterno] knew that kids were being abused, and not only did he do nothing about it, but knowingly and actively was part of a coverup whose motivation it was to place the image of Joe Paterno and Penn State football above the welfare of these harmless kids. That is a charge, which if true, is beyond horrific. And I believe there is insufficient evidence to put that charge on Joe Paterno.”
You knew this already, I’m sure. If “one of the greatest sportscasters in human history” said it, it must have some weight with you.
Or what about Frank Fina? I’m sure, as someone who has so diligently followed this case, you know Fina was one of the two main prosecutors who put Sandusky behind bars. He interviewed all those children who testified that they were abused by Sandusky. He was in court every day at trial — he sat in my row a couple days — and listened to the terrible stories of abuse. He was the one in the interrogation room who looked into their eyes and heard their tragic stories the first time they were told to anyone. Who could possibly have more sympathy for victims of child sexual abuse than a lifetime prosecutor who got 45 guilty convictions against Jerry Sandusky? You of course remember his answer when he was asked on CBS last year if he thought Joe Paterno was involved in a coverup.
- “I do not…And I’m viewing this strictly on the evidence, not any kind of fealty to anybody. I did not find that evidence.”
You remember Dick Thornburgh, of course. He’s Yale-educated — an Ivy League man, just like yourself. He was the United States Attorney General from 1988 to 1991 and the Governor of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1987. As you know, he wrote a report last year that blasted the conclusions made in the Freeh report. Granted, he was hired by the Paterno family to write the report, so he’s easy for you to write off, but he strikes me as no less credible than Louis Freeh, who was hired by the organization that voted to fire Paterno and needed justification. Here’s what Thornburgh has to say about Freeh’s (and your) conclusions:
- “There was just a rush to injustice. In the case of Mr. Paterno, that injustice was palpable.”
- “The Freeh report’s conclusion that Mr. Paterno lacked empathy for the victims of Mr. Sandusky’s abuse is unfounded and offensive.”
- “[The] lack of factual support for the Freeh report’s unfounded, collective conclusions and its numerous process-oriented deficiencies call into question the credibility of the entire report.”
- “In the end, the evidence against Paterno falls far short of sustaining allegations that he attempted in any way to conceal or cover-up Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children. In fact, the contrary is true.”
- “Indeed, none of the evidence cited by Freeh supports a claim that Paterno acted to conceal information about Sandusky. In fact, the evidence is contrary to a cover-up.”
Also — and I have no doubt you know this already since you’re up on everything — Sandy Barbour, our athletic director who you canonized in your video, has already walked back her apology for the 409 helmet stickers.
- “First of all, I want to apologize for the tweet.”
- “This is far too important a subject to vet on a casual; or in social media. I’ll use my own words. It was inappropriate and insensitive of me to do that from a tweet standpoint.”
- “I knew before I came to Penn State [from California]that 409 meant success with honor, that 409 means far more to this community and this university than wins. But, having come from the outside, I know that’s not necessarily what everyone else knows and thinks, and frankly, in my five months here, I have learned so much more about Penn State and what an incredible place it is.”
Surely, since you read my column, you know all of the positive things she’s said about Joe Paterno in the past.
- “Joe’s a big part of who we are.”
- “If you spend any time at Penn State, you can’t help but understand the importance, his importance, in our history. I’ve also had the opportunity to get to know the family a little bit. And he and his family are a big part of who we are.”
- “The impact that he’s had on that institution, and who we are as an institution, is important. It’s not just as a football program but who Penn State University is. He and Sue [Paterno] have been a huge part of that.”
Then there’s Michael Sokolove, who wrote in a comprehensive New York Times magazine piece last year that the case against Penn State’s former president as it implies a coverup is “at best problematic, at worst fatally flawed.” There’s Malcolm Gladwell, a five-time New York Times best seller, who has written extensively about pedophilia, who says he is a “good deal more forgiving of Paterno than most” and lambasted the NCAA for sanctioning Penn State. TV legend Jay Leno doesn’t buy the coverup theory, nor does your former colleague Chris Matthews, who said “I think JoePa’s coming back at some point. I don’t know how long it’s going to take — you don’t have to say it, I’m saying it, I’m not running for anything. I don’t know what kind of words were passed about Sandusky’s conduct, but horsing around doesn’t tell me anything.” There’s universally respected sportswriter Joe Posnanski, who you’ve had on your show before, who said, “That the Freeh Report has been accepted as the last word is a travesty… It’s like saying you wrote an exhaustive book on The Beatles without talking to any of The Beatles.” There’s your old SportsCenter partner Dan Patrick, who said last week, “Joe Paterno was still a great man to a great program, made it a great program… To take away the victories, I was embarrassed for the NCAA with that… Give the victories back to his family.” There’s legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who said, “As we judge, remember that there’s just a lot there. There’s a lot, lot there. I think [Paterno]’s a great man.”
And the list goes on and on.
Perhaps most disturbing is your claim that Barbour’s apology was the “first intelligent, self-effacing thing anybody at Penn State has done about the indelible stain that is Jerry Sandusky — the first thing that’s been done in 17 years.” As someone who seems so interested in the Penn State situation, surely you’ve heard of the Blue Out, the student-run, student-created organization that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for child abuse charities since November 2011. Of course you know about the Penn State Center for the Protection of Children, which the university founded and operates with its own money to help children in need. Since you seem to know a lot about the NCAA sanctions, you understand that even though the NCAA consent decree was totally repealed, Penn State is still giving the $60 million fine to child sexual abuse charities in Pennsylvania. Heck, even this “fan site” raised thousands of dollars last year for Bands4RAINN, a great charity that helps sexual abuse victims. Of course, every institution can always be doing more to help these important causes, but to say that Barbour’s apology to a Twitter troll is the “first thing that’s been done in 17 years” about Jerry Sandusky is preposterous. This part of your argument is actually black and white — you are plainly wrong.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s more to this than you allow yourself to believe. I know you’re capable of admitting you’re wrong — 200,000 Google hits for “Keith Olbermann apologizes” must mean something.
Here’s another concession for you, Keith. I admit that Penn State fans and administrators have done a poor job advocating for themselves to folks like you. The Twitter mob can be a tactless, hateful bunch, especially when it’s responding to equally tactless people (you). In general, I think Penn Staters could do a better job understanding that there are many genuine, well-intentioned people out there (not you) who think differently than them about the Sandusky scandal, and that will likely never change. You will notice in my column you blasted that I spent half of it telling Penn Staters to not be jerks and lay off our athletic director — a fact that you conveniently ignored in your rant. Everyone ought to take a deep breath, realize that people can interpret facts in many different ways (although, in your case, one must actually have facts to interpret them), and calm down sometimes when talking about this extremely emotional issue. The people calling for Barbour’s termination are lunatics, degree be damned. A former football coach was convicted of molesting kids on our campus — this fact should not be lost on any Penn Stater. Even if there wasn’t a malicious coverup, mistakes were made at Penn State, and this community recognizes that. Joe Paterno said himself that, “With the benefit of hindsight, he wished he would have done more” — and knowing what we know now, who among us wouldn’t say that? I know you think we all walk around State College in our 409 t-shirts winking to each other about how clever we were for covering up child abuse for a decade, but if you ever came here, I really don’t think you’d find it much different than Ithaca.
If you are actually interested in the Penn State situation — and, considering you’ve done two bits on it in four days, that seems likely — I have a proposal for you. Rather than sit in your studio and rant without anyone there to challenge anything you say, let’s actually add something productive to the dialogue. Here’s my email. Have your people contact me and we can set up a 60 minute public podcast to debate and discuss the Penn State situation. I know how difficult it is talking about a complex situation for longer than two minute sound bytes, but I know you’re capable of doing it.
Plus, at least with a podcast, no one will have to look at your suit.
Penn State ’14
Your ad blocker is on.
Please choose an option below.
Purchase a Subscription!
About the Author
They’re in our city.
Sam Ficken’s winding football journey has taken him from Indiana to New York with several stops in between. Now, as a Jet, he’s finally settled down in a consistent role.
Send this to a friend