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Joe Paterno’s Ugly Defenders: Exposing the Penn State Truthers

Paterno Truthers resort to trolling and misogynistic comments to deny his culpability in the Sandusky scandal.

(Photo: Penn State / Flickr)

Paterno or Penn State Truthers is the name given to those who will at all costs deny Joe Paterno’s involvement in the Penn State cover-up of the Sandusky child abuse scandal in order to salvage thereputation of the disgraced former football coach. In 2011, the university terminated Paterno’s employment and he died of cancer at the start of 2012, just a little over a year after the Sandusky scandal made national headlines.

When another former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky raped boys from his charity, The Second Mile, Penn State administrators hid the crimes in order to protect the institution’s reputation. However, the victims would eventually come forward and Sandusky was convicted on 52 counts of child molestation. Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier and other university officials who failed to report the abuse to police or state child welfare agencies were ousted. Former FBI director Louis Freeh investigated the matter and concluded that Paterno “concealed Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities.”

In response to the publication of the Freeh Report, Penn State alumni and Paterno supporters calling themselves Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship sought to discredit the inquiry and its recommendations. Not long after, the Paterno family funded its own investigation, concluding that the Freeh Report’s findings represented a “rush to injustice.” Paterno Truthers have created their own website to document their account of Paterno’s non-involvement in the Sandusky scandal. It bears the same name as their highly conspiratorial documentary: The Framing of Joe Paterno. Some even deny that Sandusky raped boys from his charity.

To read more articles by Shane Ralston and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

The Paterno Truthers have every right to express their contempt for the Freeh Report’s findings and spin conspiracy theories. However, the problem is that they will stop at nothing to surveil, harass and besmirch the reputations of those who publicly write, discuss or report on the Sandusky scandal and Paterno’s involvement.

Beware of the JoePa Posse

Former Patriot-News reporter and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Sara Ganim was a target of the Paterno Truthers. She wrote a series of articles on the Sandusky scandal and helped expose Joe Paterno’s role in the cover-up before moving into the journalistic big leagues at CNN. In a 2013 article titled “The Ugly Harassment of Sara Ganim, journalist Joel Mathis reports that “a small-but-vocal number of those people [who feel like Paterno was unfairly treated] are determined to hound Ganim — sometimes in ugly and frightening ways — for the sin of having committed journalism.”

Ganim’s harassment by Paterno Truthers took place on the social media platform Twitter. It took the form of misogynistic comments, allegations of sexual promiscuity and thinly veiled threats of rape. Mathis explains why the JoePa posse’s aggressive Tweets undermine their message:

Let’s put aside how incredibly tedious, tiresome and unavoidable the “Paterno truther” brigade has become for anyone who dares write (or even tweet) credulously about the downfall of Saint JoePa. What even the truthers should understand is this: Fighting against Paterno’s critics by using sexually demeaning and degrading language is really not the best way to demonstrate that you have your priorities in the right place when a sex abuse scandal — and the ease with which it was overlooked — is at the heart of the whole never-ending mess in the first place.

Mathis confronts the JoePa posse directly, arguing that intimidating journalists will not have the intended effect of salvaging Paterno’s legacy:

You don’t have a ton of credibility, truthers, except with each other. You reduce it further every time you call Ganim a “bitch” or suggest she’s been sleeping around. And you reduce it when you keep your silence in the face of misogyny, just because you don’t like Ganim and her work. All of which will actively short-circuit a renaissance for Paterno’s memory, or Penn State itself.

I too have been a target of the Paterno Truthers. I am a Penn State professor and a Penn State alumni member. I have been surveilled and harassed by Truthers. When I posted a paper about the Sandusky scandal almost a year ago on my site, I began seeing regular Google hits on my paper and the site from an individual in Bloomsburg, a nearby city in Pennsylvania. Since then, any posted papers related to child welfare, child abuse or Penn State are downloaded by this individual. When I wrote an article for Truthout about cheating scandals at higher education institutions in Pennsylvania, including Penn State, the first comment on the article was from a Paterno Truther. Not long after the publication of that article, my professional Penn State website and blog were promptly shut down by university administration. Indeed, the JoePa posse has immense influence on Penn State, so much that their members are willing to use that influence to harass faculty and retaliate against fellow alums who choose to speak out.

Penn State Honors Paterno Despite Outrage

Many of these Truthers are Penn State alumni who give generously to their Alma Mater. Their donations translate into influence, especially among the university’s executive leadership and administration. Most recently, Paterno Truthers and alumni petitioned Penn State’s leadership to honor Paterno at the Temple-Penn State football game. The ceremony will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Paterno’s appointment as Penn State’s head football coach.

Despite trying to hide the ceremony’s existence in a dense press release, news of the September 17, 2016, commemoration ceremony was revealed on the blog Onward State. Several people posted on Twitter that it would be best to silence these accolades for Paterno, just as he silenced the truth about the Sandusky rapes for years. These expressions of outrage came on the heels of a release of court documents in July revealing testimony that Paterno and other senior Penn State leaders were privy to reports of Sandusky’s activities as early as 1976, but failed to report them for fear of the recriminations such disclosures would bring, as well as harm to the university’s reputation.

According to journalist Scott Jaschick, the critics “have said that any honors for Paterno suggest a tolerance of his actions (and especially his lack of action) in the Sandusky case.” Nevertheless, the Paterno Truthers insist that the late Paterno deserves the honor and that it is the least the university can do given how unfairly it treated him before his untimely death.

Penn State’s Call for Civility and Respect

Penn State has made pleas to Paterno Truthers, particularly those in its alumni network, to dispense with intimidation and harassment in expressing their disagreement with those who accept the received view of Paterno’s role in the Sandusky scandal.

In a letter addressed to its alumni network, Penn State calls for civility and respect:

Today, civility is an issue that arises in many areas of campus debate. Some may argue that the lack of civility is a national issue, promoted by a growing community involved in posting anonymous comments on blogs and by acrimonious national politics. […]

Respect is a core value at Penn State University. We ask you [Penn State alumni] to consciously choose civility and to support those whose words and actions serve to promote respectful disagreement and thereby strengthen our community.

Obviously the plea has not worked. Paterno Truthers continue to surveil, harass and attack the reputations of those who would write, tweet and blog about Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky affair.

Penn State President Eric Barron has expressed skepticism about the allegations that Penn State higher-ups, including Paterno, knew about the child rapes as early as the 1970s and yet failed to report or stop them. Barron states that

…the alleged knowledge of former Penn State employees is not proven, and should not be treated as such. Some individuals deny the claims, and others are unable to defend themselves. Speculation also serves to drive a wedge within the Penn State community.

In other words, it is better for Penn Staters not to speculate, to remain silent and to stand in solidarity with the Paterno Truthers. Otherwise, to speculate, speak out or stand up for Sandusky’s victims would tear the Penn State community apart. It is odd that President Barron never considered the possibility that the decision to honor Paterno might have the same effect on the Penn State community. Perhaps the donations of Paterno Truthers were too tempting to pass up.

A Call for Critical Thinking

What the Paterno Truthers remind me of are the Princeton University alumni who sought to pressure their university to fire the ethicist Peter Singer because he endorsed unpopular views, such as that bestiality and infanticide are morally justified. I often use this as an example in my critical thinking courses of what can happen when smart people make mistakes in reasoning and argumentation, embracing a predetermined conclusion and then looking wildly for the evidence to support it, rather than suspending judgment, inquiring and then choosing a conclusion supported by the facts. There really is no excuse for such poor critical thinking, but Paterno Truthers — many of whom I’m embarrassed to admit are graduates of Penn State — have managed to offer us a good illustration of what poor critical thinking looks like. For those of us who are still being targeted by the JoePa posse, calling them poor critical thinkers might be the equivalent of taking the moral high ground.

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