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EDITORIAL: Penn State president makes error in judgment
Often, doing nothing is the best option.
Penn State president Eric Barron, however, apparently doesn't believe in that axiom.
Now Penn State and Barron are paying the price in the court of public opinion — again.
In the past week, there have been some new “revelations” in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Here are the bullet points:
- An insurer, embroiled in a court battle with Penn State over more than $90 million in settlements paid in the Sandusky case, included a single paragraph in a legal document alleging that a child told PSU head coach Joe Paterno in 1976 that Sandusky had molested him. No further proof was offered to back the charge.
- There were also allegations by the insurer that two PSU assistant coaches witnessed Sandusky having inappropriate or sexual contact with children in the late 1980s. Prosecutors dismissed the allegations as unreliable hearsay.
- The university acknowledged Sunday that the abuse allegations against Sandusky dated as far back as 1971. Again, prosecutors said the 1971 claim was known to investigators, but they found no supporting documentation from that period.
Those who believe that where there's smoke, there's fire, would cite these new disclosures as more proof that Penn State's coaches and administrators knew for decades about Sandusky's heinous crimes and did nothing to prevent them. Instead they actively tried to cover them up.
PSU's defenders, of course, have a much different take. They would point to the lack of corroborating evidence for the new allegations, and the fact that prosecutors found nothing worthy of new investgation. They'd also note that the insurer has a very large ax to grind — to the tune of $90 million.
Given that Sandusky is in jail, Paterno is dead and none of the former PSU assistants are still with the football program, it's likely the new revelations would have garnered headlines for a few news cycles before fading into the background. That's especially true when you consider the lack of corroborating evidence and the prosecutors' apparent unwillingness to press any new investigation.
Barron, however, unwisely decided to weigh in about the new disclosures on Sunday in a poorly worded open letter to the PSU community.
“I want you to know I am appalled by the rumor, innuendo and rush to judgment that have accompanied the media stories surrounding these allegations,” Barron wrote. “All too often in our society, people are convicted in the court of public opinion, only to find a different outcome when all the facts are presented.”
Barron obviously believed he was defending his university against a dreaded media firestorm.
What he was really doing, however, was re-opening old wounds, subjecting his university to renewed criticism and breathing new life into a negative story about his school.
It didn't take long for the critics to pounce.
National columnists, especially, have long fed on the Sandusky story. Barron's comments gave them a new opportunity to do.
Christine Brennan of USA Today, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! and David Steele of Sporting News, among others, quickly lambasted the school president.
Brennan asked: "Did Penn State learn nothing from the previous scandal?"
Jenkins called Barron the "the latest blame-shifter with a blind spot."
Wetzel wrote that Barron “pathetically tried to shift the blame while lamenting that the poor, poor school and its old coach were being dragged though the mud.”
Steele ripped Barron as “another clueless, tone-deaf, circle-the-wagons school president” who “got it wrong.”
And that's just a sampling of criticism.
Barron became PSU's president in 2014, long after Paterno died and Sandusky went to jail.
He was largely hired to help Penn State escape the quagmire that the school was wallowing in following the Sandusky scandal.
What he really did with Sunday's letter, however, was sink his school deeper into the muddy morass.
Doing nothing, and allowing the new unsubstantiated charges to collapse under their own weight, was definitely his best option.
Hopefully he knows that now.