Friday, July 13, 2012

Something about Joe Paterno and outrage

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece for the New Yorker way back in the day (2003, to be specific) about the power of hindsight. The premise: Looking back at a horrifying thing and connecting the dots while knowing the outcome is not the same as being able to connect said dots in real time in advance of knowing the outcome.

A useful summary/example:
For example, on the eve of Richard Nixon's historic visit to China, the psychologist Baruch Fischhoff asked a group of people to estimate the probability of a series of possible outcomes of the trip. What were the chances that the trip would lead to permanent diplomatic relations between China and the United States? That Nixon would meet with the leader of China, Mao Tse-tung, at least once? That Nixon would call the trip a success? As it turned out, the trip was a diplomatic triumph, and Fischhoff then went back to the same people and asked them to recall what their estimates of the different outcomes of the visit had been. He found that the subjects now, overwhelmingly, "remembered" being more optimistic than they had actually been. If you originally thought that it was unlikely that Nixon would meet with Mao, afterward, when the press was full of accounts of Nixon's meeting with Mao, you'd "remember" that you had thought the chances of a meeting were pretty good. Fischhoff calls this phenomenon "creeping determinism"-- the sense that grows on us, in retrospect, that what has happened was actually inevitable--and the chief effect of creeping determinism, he points out, is that it turns unexpected events into expected events. As he writes, "The occurrence of an event increases its reconstructed probability and makes it less surprising than it would have been had the original probability been remembered."
That's a long paragraph with a relatively logical and easy-to-follow conclusion.

I'm gonna be honest here: I expected the Freeh report to represent a sort of creeping determinism regarding a general lack of oversight (or whatever you wanna call it) at Penn State that allowed The Stuff to continue for years and years and a disgusting number of years. What was actually produced was something much worse that basically established all the worst-case scenarios as facts (or at least an Occam's Razor type of these-are-the-only-reasonable-conclusions-possible facts).

The money graf:
"It is (reasonable) to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University – Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley – repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large. Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by them for Sandusky's victims."
Joe Paterno knew everything. He knew about 1998 and knew everything about the 2001 investigation and knew about the Second Mile weirdness. He knew and did literally nothing until something seemed inevitable, and then he did worse than nothing:
"Based on the evidence, the only known, intervening factor between the decision made on February 25, 2001 by Messrs. Spanier, Curley and Schulz to report the incident to the Department of Public Welfare, and then agreeing not to do so on February 27th, was Mr. Paterno's February 26th conversation with Mr. Curley," the report wrote.
That's so, so much worse than nothing. Consider this tweet from some insightful guy ...
@bubbaprog: Realize Paterno's nonchalant response to McQueary in 2001 is due to him having known Sandusky abused kids for three years.
... and this tweet from Stewart Mandel:
@sImandel : Penn State received word that the indictment was coming around Oct 27 last yr. On Oct. 29 Sandusky attended PSU game, in Nittany Lion Club
ARGH. Louis Freeh called it "an active agreement to conceal" at his presser Thursday and was totally right. Paterno knew everything and did nothing because either (a) he could not reconcile his image of Penn State football with the image that would be created via the public knowledge of the reality of Penn State football or (b) he could not allow the image of Joe Paterno to be an image that included (even if on the periphery) a child molester. There's some irony in that now.

This is from one of the many very good things that was written today by one of many people better at writing than I am (via MGoBlog):
If Penn State had not been posited as a Grand Experiment, it's possible that one of the four adult-type substances who could have put Sandusky's second career to a stop a decade before it did would have had more regard for the possibility children would be raped than for what people would think about them. It's too late for all of them, perpetrator and victims alike, now. But to me the lesson is to shut up about yourself and get on with it. It will help you not make terrible mistakes because you are trying to preserve what people think about you in the face of what you really are.
The "Grand Experiment" thing has been around forever but really only matters within the current context because of the thing Paterno wrote right before his death that got circulated everywhere on the interwebs a few days ago.

A particularly relevant portion:
"Let me say that again so I am not misunderstood: Regardless of anyone’s opinion of my actions or the actions of the handful of administration officials in this matter, the fact is nothing alleged is an indictment of football or evidence that the spectacular collections of accomplishments by dedicated student athletes should be in any way tarnished."
That was the important takeaway for Joe Paterno. Read that paragraph again. Head asplode.

He's right about the latter portion (the "dedicated student-athletes" had nothing to do with anything) but so disgustingly wrong about the first portion that ... I mean ... guh. Everything alleged was an indictment of football because everything that happened/didn't happen happened/didn't happen because of football. Go back up to the part about the "active agreement to conceal" and Paterno's reasons for said agreement, which were the image of the football program and the image of Paterno that was created entirely by his inescapable intertwinement with the football program.

This is where the NCAA thing becomes relevant. I don't know whether Penn State deserves the death penalty. I don't know because ... I mean ... I just don't know, man. There are totally coherent and logical arguments for the freakin' death penalty (those are pretty self-explanatory) and there are totally coherent and legal arguments for no NCAA penalties at all (everybody involved is dead, gone from the university and/or going to a federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison); those arguments are both right. Whether one is more right is pretty much a matter of one's fundamental belief about fairness. I will say this: Think about the reaction at Penn State when JoePa (back when he was still JoePa and not just Joe Paterno) got fired and then think about the reaction at the highest levels of the institution when Jerry Sandusky should have been fired for raping children on campus (!!!); the culture/atmosphere/whatever you wanna call it at Penn State was/is skewed in a way that might not be fixable via the removal of five people. And the thing I said at the end of the previous paragraph about the Paterno/Penn State intertwinement works both ways: Penn State football is only Penn State football because of Joe Paterno. What's the appropriate punishment for that?

That's a rhetorical question the NCAA would like to answer, probably with something other than "the death penalty" unless the death-penalty subsection (currently reserved for repeat violators) is rewritten explicitly for this investigation; that seems unlikely but might not be that unlikely given the level of OUTRAGE.

My level of related outrage has gone up only marginally, but that's because I was realistic about Paterno's level of involvement/knowledge (and, by proxy, the Penn State administration's level of involvement/knowledge) back in November. This is what I wrote when Paterno died:
There's a sidebar on ESPN right now with the headline, "Legacy outweighs scandal." I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. First of all, how do you define a weight to what just happened when it's both so morally horrifying and so recent? And secondly, I don't think the two can be separated like that. The scandal is a ginormous part of his legacy now. Whether it's the most ginormous is a matter of debate, but it's definitely up there. The way I see it, the only way in which that headline is accurate is this one: Joe Paterno will always be the legendary Penn State coach (first and foremost) whose career ended because of his role in some unspeakable awfulness. The "Penn State coach" part has to come first because it's what Joe Paterno was, is and always will be. I literally cannot envision Joe Paterno doing something other than coaching Penn State or wearing something other than his typical sideline attire. He'll forever be attached to Penn State, which is obviously uncomfortable right now for some people at Penn State but isn't a choice. ...
His legacy is what it is, ending included.
The postscript: Everything that happened after 1998 happened only because it was allowed to happen. You can distribute the blame however you see fit but must acknowledge that allowing a child rapist to continue being a child rapist solely to avoid personal notoriety is a disgusting thing, and I use "disgusting" as my adjective of choice only because I can't think of anything else more appropriate to summarize all the awfulness that happened (or didn't happen) over the past 14 years.


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