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Revisiting the Sandusky Scandal and Penn State: New Perspectives Changing the Narrative

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell is coming to State College to talk about his new book, “Talking with Strangers.”

On Wednesday, he’ll be attending a $100/person reception at Centre Furnace Mansion from 4:30 to 6 p.m., with proceeds benefiting the Centre County Historical Society. This will be followed by an interview with a question-and-answer session at the State Theatre beginning at 6:30 p.m. These are likely to be among the most controversial events that State College has seen in a long time. 

In “Talking with Strangers,” Gladwell stirred up a hornets’ nest with his chapter on the Sandusky scandal entitled “The Boy in the Shower.” The thesis of this new book is that humans innately tend to form positive impressions of others, even in the face of contrary indications. Using the Sandusky scandal as a case study, he takes on many of the misunderstandings and false “facts,” upon which the media narrative of that scandal has been based.

Since the book’s publication, however, he has stirred the hornets even more in several podcast interviews. In a podcast interview with Bill Simmons, Gladwell asserts, “The leadership at Penn State was totally, outrageously attacked over this. I think they’re blameless,” In addition, Gladwell insists, “Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong.” 

Statements such as these are sure to send sparks flying and evoke a lot of questions—perhaps even some soul searching. But in another interview, this time with John Zeigler, Gladwell went even further, claiming, for example: 

“There is no way Joe Paterno even belongs in this conversation. Everyone should agree he was treated shamefully and that his good name needs to be restored.”

“We were way, way, way, way too quick to come to judgement about the Penn State leadership and on Joe Paterno, and way too quick to think that Mike McQueary’s account is cut and dry when, in fact, it’s not.”

“Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz were the victims of a moral panic. It was crazy.”

“The Freeh Report is a whole other pile of crap.”

The news media’s total lack of curiosity in the real story of the “boy in the shower” . . . is “bizarre.”

On Sandusky’s guilt: “I don’t know. The public should know that this is murky… This case is shrouded in doubt.” He adds that in reality it is, “the polar opposite of the Larry Nassar case.” 

See John Ziegler’s written account of this interview here.

*  *  *

There have been many developments in the case since the Sandusky scandal erupted in 2011-2012, when Penn State University and its leaders, as well as everything in the Nittany Valley, were covered in vitriol. Indeed, the avalanche of outrage at everything Penn State was so great that the Associated Press voted the Penn State Scandal among the top 10 national stories for two years in a row.

Nevertheless, since then many cracks have been exposed in the media narrative. Let me, therefore, recount two of these developments that have not only challenged, but refuted it—and which buttress Gladwell’s assertions.

I. Gladwell: “Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong.” 

If one believes that Gladwell is way out of line in making this statement, consider the following developments:

NCAA Guidelines on Sexual Abuse on Campus

On September 3, 2014, the NCAA, after assembling the best experts in the field, released a handbook containing guidelines on how to handle issues of sexual assault, including child abuse, on university campuses. These specifically provide:

  1. Follow campus protocol for reporting incidents of sexual violence; 

  2. Report immediately any suspected sexual violence to appropriate campus offices for investigation and adjudication

  3. Cooperate with but not manage, direct, control or interfere with college or university investigations into allegations of sexual violence ensuring that investigations involving student-athletes and athletics department staff are managed in the same manner as all other students and staff on campus.

The essence of these guidelines is that whenever sexual violence is suspected, one is not to call the police. Rather it is to be reported to “appropriate campus offices” for investigation. This is exactly what Joe Paterno did; he followed to a “T” what the NCAA’s handbook now defines as “best practices.” 

Since it contradicts so much of the media narrative, the issuance of the NCAA handbook was not widely reported nationally. But it was reported extensively in Pennsylvania because of the implications for Joe Paterno. 

“New NCAA sexual violence handbook sparks cries of hypocrisy” reads the headline from the Centre Daily Times, quoting state Sen. Jake Corman who represents the district in which Penn State is located: “The hypocrisy of the NCAA is beyond belief. Report to superiors. That’s exactly what Joe Paterno did.”  Penn State Trustee Anthony Lubrano summed up what many felt: “Joe Paterno was vilified for following the procedure now set forth by the NCAA,” he said. “Ironic, isn’t it?” 

Speaking on behalf of the Paterno family, Jay Paterno immediately commented that the NCAA’s handbook ‘invalidates the very foundation of the consent decree [that imposed sanctions on Penn State in July 2012] and Mark Emmert’s press conference statements that Penn State failed to act appropriately. The course taken by Joe Paterno and the athletic department was exactly what the NCAA recommends… Because Penn State followed them, the NCAA should remove the sanctions.”

Five days later, the NCAA did exactly that. On September 8, 2014, the NCAA removedtwo years early — the sanctions on Penn State’s athletic program.

Governor Corbett Changes His Mind

 Two months later, on November 7, 2014, ABC News ran a story headlined, Corbett: Joe Paterno Wrongly Fired,’ reporting that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who was a member of the Board of Trustees that fired Paterno, had changed his mind. ‘They [the Board of Trustees] probably shouldn’t have fired him,” he now said, adding “technically, he complied with the law.”

NCAA Repeals Consent Decree

On January 9, 2015, four months after removing the sanctions on Penn State’s football program, the NCAA agreed to repeal the consent decree on which those sanctions were based. That decree had declared Paterno’s actions “deficient.” Since what Paterno had done was no longer “deficient,” the NCAA  restored all 112 football wins vacated in 2012.

Joe Paterno was once now back in the good graces of the NCAA — and once again the “winningest” coach in collegiate football history, prompting the New York Times to publish a story headlined: The Rehabilitation of Joe Paterno: Back at No. 1

The Meaning of the NCAA Repeal

Jan Murphy, reporting for PennLive, quotesCorman summarizing what the repeal of the Consent Decree means for Penn Staters;

For Corman, it was clear that he felt the NCAA’s sanctions were like a knife to the heart of the community he holds dear and to the Penn State Nation as a whole.

He said it was ‘extremely damaging to my community’ and hurtful to Penn State which was wrongfully demeaned by the NCAA for having a culture that overly emphasized athletics.

‘Penn State was and is a model athletic department for others to emulate,’ Corman said. ‘The reputations of many people including one of the most revered sports figures of the 20th century were tarnished by accusations which were not based in fact. The restoration of these victories will once again forevermore restore Joe Paterno as the winningest coach in the history of college football with 409 victories.’

Based on these developments, Gladwell is pretty well spot on in saying that “Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong.”

II. Gladwell: “The Freeh Report is a whole other pile of crap.”

From the time of its release on  July 12, 2012, the Freeh Report has been hotly contested, both for its conclusions as well as its form. On February 10, 2013, the Paterno family released a 328-page Response to the Freeh Report, prepared under the leadership of former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, which also included reports by former FBI profiler Jim Clemente, attorney Wick Sollers, and Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit.

The conclusion of this response was that the Freeh Report was fundamentally flawed.

Penn State President Barron Rejects the Findings of the Freeh Investigation

 Because the “contents of the [Freeh] report have led to questions by some in the Penn State community,” Penn State president Eric Barron announced on November 14, 2014, that he would conduct his own personal review. “’If there are issues [with the Freeh Report’s completeness or credibility] that I felt the board needed to know about, I committed myself to come forward to them and report what it is that I found,’ Barron said.

On January 28, 2015, president Barron announced his conclusions. They were scathing. The Associated Press reported:

Penn State’s president on Wednesday dismissed the university-commissioned review of how top administrators handled child molestation complaints about former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky as ‘not useful to make decisions.’

Eric Barron told The Associated Press that the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh took a prosecutorial approach and created an ‘absurd’ and ‘unwarranted’ picture of students, faculty and others associated with the university.

‘I have to say, I’m not a fan of the report,’ Barron said during a half-hour interview in his office in Old Main, the school’s administrative headquarters. ‘There’s no doubt in my mind, Freeh steered everything as if he were a prosecutor trying to convince a court to take the case.”

A week earlier, Ivan Maisel, ESPN’s college football senior writer, opined, “The Freeh report, as it turned out, carried all the factual gravitas of a high school term paper.” 

Both President Barron’s conclusion and Ivan Maisel’s statement confirm Gladwell’s judgment that “The Freeh Report is a whole other pile of crap.”

The Alumni Trustees’ Investigation of the Freeh Report

But if some people are not comfortable with  a mere opinion or bare conclusions, they can get a detailed analysis of the flaws in the Freeh Report—and all of its underlying sources — by reading the Report to the Board of Trustees of the Pennsylvania State University on the Freeh Report’s Flawed Methodology & Conclusions.

This 208-page report, which became public in February 2019, was authored by seven alumni-elected trustees: Ted Brown, Barbara Doran, Robert Jubelirer, Bill Oldsey, Alice Pope, Anthony Lubrano, and Ryan McCombie.

The specific purpose of their investigation of the Freeh Report was to examine the underlying sources relied on by Freeh, in order to determine whether they actually supported Freeh’s conclusions. What they discovered is that Freeh’s conclusions were, not only not supported by the record, but contradicted by it. Among the most salient findings of the elected trustees’ report are:

  • There was no support for the conclusion that Paterno, Spanier, Schultz or Curley knew Sandusky had harmed children.

  • There was no support for the conclusion that Penn State’s culture was responsible for allowing Sandusky to harm children.

  • The Freeh team’s independence was ‘fatally compromised’. . .

  • The Freeh Report was full of investigative and reporting flaws, using unreliable methods for conducting and analyzing interviews . . . supplying motivations supported only by conjecture . . . and ignoring or withholding ‘the vast majority of investigative findings which were contrary to the report’s conclusions.’ editor Geoff Rushton wrote that the alumni-elected trustees’ report “builds the most comprehensive case to date for rejecting the Freeh Report.” Rushton’s detailed summary is here, while the full 208-page text of the trustees’ report may be found here.

Once again, Gladwell’s judgment is confirmed by detailed and substantial evidence: “The Freeh Report is a whole other pile of crap.”


I began this article by quoting many remarkable statements that Malcolm Gladwell has made relative to the Sandusky scandal. In the space allowed, I have addressed only two of the developments that have altered the original media narrative: (1) the NCAA’s 2014 guidelines for handling sexual assault on campus that vindicate what Joe Paterno did; and (2) President Eric Barron’s review of the Freeh Report, and the alumni trustees’ report, which prove the unreliability of what Louis Freeh produced.

Many other developments have occurred over the last eight years that change almost every other aspect of the media narrative about Penn State’s role in the Sandusky scandal. I could write many more thousands of words to establish the credibility of every other statement Gladwell makes. But I shall have to save that for a series of future articles. 

Meanwhile, for those who can attend the reception at Centre Furnace, and for those attending his talk at the State Theatre, I urge you to listen closely to this speaker; he has a lot of wisdom. And he has many insights that will help all Penn Staters, and everyone in the Nittany Valley, hold our heads high again.



Ben Novak is a retired attorney, writer and teacher. 

He graduated from Penn State in 1965 with a BA in economics. In 1968 he received a J.D. degree from Georgetown University. Later, in 1999, he earned a Ph.D. at Penn State in the interdisciplinary doctoral studies program.  His dissertation, entitled Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant, was published by Lexington Books in 2014.

After serving in the U.S. Army (1968-1970), including a year in Viet Nam, he practiced law in Centre County for more than three decades (1970-2001). From 1984 to 1987 he published the first regular (bi-weekly) column on beer appreciation; his columns were collected and published in 2013 as  The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution

He founded and was the first president of both the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and the Lion Fraternity Alumni Association. He served four three-year terms on Penn State’s Board of Trustees as an Alumni Elected Trustee (1988-2000). In 2001, he retired to live and teach in Slovakia, the land of his ancestors in Europe, for seven years. 

He now resides in Ave Maria, Florida, where he thanks God every day for the warm, sunny weather.