Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

Malcolm Gladwell Goes On Bill Simmons's Podcast To Dust Off The Oldest, Dumbest Defense Of Joe Paterno

Photo: Matthew Eisman (Getty)

There’s no good reason to consider Malcolm Gladwell a serious writer or thinker anymore, thanks in large part to the things Gladwell continues to write and think. Despite this, he was allowed to write a new book—if you want to know more about it, I suggest clicking on this review in The Atlantic and doing a Ctrl+F search for “poets die young”—the press tour for which brought him to Bill Simmons’s podcast. There, while receiving no pushback from Simmons, he deployed a truly dogshit defense of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

Gladwell’s never been very rigorous in constructing his arguments and theories, but he possesses enough rhetorical flair that you would at least expect him to come up with a novel argument about Paterno, and one that could at least sound true and convincing for the three-second interval before you actually started thinking it over. But no, Gladwell couldn’t even give us that. His argument that Paterno was wrongfully blamed for not having done anything to stop Jerry Sandusky from raping children is as old and simple and small-brained as such arguments get. From the podcast (the conversation starts about the 50-minute mark):

Gladwell: You know I have that chapter on Jerry Sandusky in my book, and it’s all about how I feel the leadership of Penn State was totally, outrageously attacked over this. I think they’re blameless.

Simmons: Yeah.

Gladwell: But with Joe Paterno... Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong. He hears the allegation and immediately tells his superiors, and the critique of Joe Paterno was essentially, “Why was a 75-year-old football coach not behaving towards a suspected pedophile with the savvy and insight of a psychiatrist?”

Simmons: Right.

Gladwell: He’s a football coach! He doesn’t even know what the word—there was this hilarious—[regretful sigh] hilarious—there was this moment in, I think one of the trial transcripts, where someone was asked, “Did you use, when you went to”—the quarterback who goes to Paterno, McQueary, the former quarterback, goes to Paterno to tell him this allegation—“Did you use the word sodomy?” And he’s like, “No I didn’t use the word sodomy.” And then there’s this sort of thing, I think, where they’re wondering whether Paterno actually knew what the word sodomy was [laughing].

Simmons: Right.

Gladwell: He doesn’t! He’s been thinking football 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 60 years. He is not going to be alert to the darkness inside the heart of one of his former coaches. You can’t ask him to do that. That’s why you have mental health professionals or fit, trained psychologists in the world to handle those kind of problems. We do this thing sometimes when a crisis happens, when we suddenly expect our leaders to be skilled at absolutely every job under the sun. They’re not.

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Gladwell isn’t doing anything here that Joe Posnanski and Sally Jenkins didn’t already do years ago, which is to excuse Paterno’s failure to call the cops by rendering him as a doddering old simpleton who couldn’t possibly be expected to understand or properly respond to being told that his longtime assistant coach was seen raping a boy in the Penn State showers. It only holds water if you believe that old people are children, and that football coaches are incapable of understanding anything other than football.

If Gladwell has added anything to this standard defense of Paterno, it’s his willingness to move the goalposts a few hundred yards down the field. At what point in time was the critique of Paterno based on the fact that he didn’t respond to what Mike McQueary described to him with the “savvy and insight of a psychiatrist”? As far as anyone who is not compelled to make up a bunch of dumb bullshit for the sake of writing and selling a book is concerned, the critique of Paterno has always been that he should have called the fucking cops.

Gladwell tries to go in for some of his signature pop-psychology razzle-dazzle at the end of his rant, pivoting away from the very basic set of undisputed facts that he’s half-heartedly tried to muddy up—Joe Paterno was confronted with a vivid description of child rape carried out by one of his former assistant coaches and did not alert the police—and into some deep thinking about what We As A Society expect from our leaders. The fact that he’s even trying this song and dance with something as plainly obvious as Joe Paterno’s moral failure is as good of evidence as anything else in his book that he’s completely out of ideas.

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