Forty Septembers Ago

Forty Septembers ago, sport and politics intersected on an international stage, resulting in drama and tragedy unmatched before or since.

The 1972 Summer Olympics were supposed to mark Germany’s ultimate return to prominence one score and seven years after the end of World War II. At least that was the plan for republican and free West Germany – Deutschland was still divided, East Germany a Soviet satellite trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

The Games had last been held in Germany in 1936. Adolph Hitler sought to use those Olympics as a showcase to demonstrate the competence of his ruling national socialist party. Now often called the “Nazi Olympics,” the Berlin Games were successful in an overall sense … filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and games organizer Carl Diem creating one of the first true sporting spectacles; the great American sprinter Jesse Owens (the most famous of a bevy of African American athletes) shattering any notions of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals.

As the ’72 Games approached, the West Germans wanted no links to the aggressive, militaristic history many people around the globe associated with the Germany of WWI and WWII, and they certainly sought to avoid connection with 1936 Berlin. The Munich Olympics were to be the “Happy Games.” Security personnel carried no visible weapons, even dressed in soft pastel colors. This laxity proved tragic.

In the early morning hours of September 5th, during the second week of the Games, Palestinian terrorists dressed as athletes scaled a fence and entered the Olympic Village. The eight terrorists broke into apartments housing Israeli athletes and coaches. They immediately killed two of them, and took nine hostages. After nearly 18 hours of negotiations – played out on television – a bus ferried the terrorists and their hostages to the NATO air base at Furstenfeldbrook. There a poorly planned attempt to free the hostages by German authorities resulted in the murder of the remaining nine Israeli hostages, the deaths of a German policeman caught in the crossfire and five of the terrorists, and the capture of the remaining three terrorists (who would be released in a prisoner exchange by the West Germans within weeks).

After a one-day period of grieving, IOC President Avery Brundage announced “the Games must go on.”

And they did.

While nothing compared to the tragedy of the massacre, other controversial events took place as well. Brundage was roundly criticized for his decision to continue the games after only 24 hours. Controversial calls at the end of the gold medal basketball game allowed the Soviet Union to prevail over a U.S. team that had never lost in Olympic basketball competition; the Americans refused the silver medals (which sit even today in a vault at IOC headquarters in Lausanne). U.S. sprinters were given an old schedule by their coach and the 100 meter favorite (Eddie Hart) never even made it to his preliminary heats (having to settle for gold in the 4×100 relay). American swimmer Mark Spitz won 7 gold medals (a record that would stand until Michael Phelps won 8 in 2008) but left the Games immediately after completing his event (the Jewish Spitz uncomfortable staying in Munich). Altogether, the Olympic Movement would not truly recover from these events until the 1992 Barcelona Games (1976 Montreal Games faced boycotts and financial problems; 1980 Moscow Games saw an American-led boycott by western nations; 1984 LA Games saw a tit-for-tat boycott by the Soviets and eastern-bloc nations; the 1988 Seoul Games were marred by the Ben Johnson steroid scandal and controversial judging).

At the same time the 1972 Olympics captivated the world’s attention, two nations played out their own international drama on the ice.

Canada and the Soviet Union competed against each other in eight games, starting on September 2nd with four games played in four cities across Canada, and ending on September 28th after four games played in Moscow. The “Summit Series” never garnered as much attention as the 1972 Munich Olympics, but the hockey was riveting, with Cold War tensions spilling onto the rink nearly a decade before the United States would win the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY.

Most hockey aficionados – fans, experts, and players alike – expected the mighty team of Canadians to dominate the Soviets. Canada is considered the historical home of ice hockey, the game originating there in the 1800s and the first official match taking place in 1875. Open professionals from the NHL, which comprised the roster of team Canada, could not compete in the Olympics at the time, so this series was the first true opportunity for the pros from Canada to take on the Soviets, a team comprised of Russians who had dominated international amateur hockey for a couple of decades (the Russians were “amateur” in name only; they played hockey for a living).

On September 2nd, the Soviets stunned the Canadians with a 7-3 victory in the first game, overcoming a quick goal by Phil Esposito with flashy speed and precision on offense, especially from forward Valeri Kharlamov who scored twice and would become the USSR star of the series (along with goaltender Vladislav Tretiak). Canada came back to win Game Two on September 4th in Toronto (the same night the Olympic Village in Munich fell into peaceful slumber – hours before the terrorist attack), and the teams played to a tie in Winnipeg on September 6th.

When the Soviets prevailed 5-3 on September 8th in Vancouver, and then 5-4 two weeks later in Moscow, the USSR held a 3-1-1 lead in the competition. Team Canada would need to win the three remaining games – all in Moscow – to salvage the series.

And they did.

In one of those remarkable turnarounds that happen only in sport, Canada eked out a 3-2 win in Game 5 with Paul Henderson (remember the name) scoring the clincher. In Game 6, the great Esposito willed Canada to another clutch victory by scoring two goals, with Henderson again punching in the game-winner in the 4-3 final. In the last game, Canada trailed 5-3 in the third period but surged to a 6-5 thrilling win when Esposito scored two more goals and Henderson – yes that man again – slammed in a rebound with seconds remaining to secure the Summit Series.

The 1972 Munich Olympics.

The 1972 Summit Series.

These overlapping competitions forty Septembers ago provided simultaneous examples of tragedy and drama, sport and politics, seen neither before or since.

Day of the Jackals

The jackals of American media loosed themselves fully on old Joe Paterno last week.

Whether attacking alone or as a pack, the nation’s self-appointed pundits and protectors of the truth – sportswriters, sports talk radio hosts, even national network news readers who rarely deign to dirty their hands in the world of sports (unless a fresh scandal is ripe) – all of them tore away at the old man’s legacy, trying to rip away any last flecks of flesh from the bare carcass of the once revered man’s reputation.

On Thursday (July 12), the day the Freeh Report was made public, I spent nearly seven hours listening to talk radio while driving from north Georgia to the panhandle of Florida. The weather – alternating between cloudy gray skies and heavy downpours of rain – aptly fit the mood generated by the report. Starting with the Atlanta stations in the morning, switching to national big hitters during lunch, finding a small-town south Alabama program at mid-day, and finishing up with the ubiquitous Paul Finebaum in late afternoon … virtually all the conversation focused on the Freeh Report and what it said about Paterno.

While recognizing the sickening and horrific nature of the crimes committed by the serial pedophile Jerry Sandusky, the comments I heard from hosts and their guests (not the callers so much – they were much more measured) about Paterno still felt too ugly, too hateful and hate-filled, opinions toppling out in near unanimous chorus with little room for nuance, discussion or reflection, the obligatory condolensces occasionally cast toward the victims seeming incidental, even empty. Almost all the vitriol spewed straight at Joseph Vincent Paterno. By the end of the ride, had I not known better, Paterno could have been the molester instead of Sandusky.

The jackals proposed an array of penalties for the dead man. Remove the statue from Penn State’s campus. Strip Paterno of his wins from 2001 forward. Take his family’s pension. Put the football program on probation for a year, two years, five years, or just shut it down permanently.

Unfortunately, none – NONE – of the hosts, guests, or callers had read the Freeh Report that day. None of them had read the report. Let that register. They couldn’t have read the full report because it was released only that morning. The findings run one hundred and forty-four pages (144) in length, with another hundred and twenty-three pages (123) of end notes and addendums, for the oft-cited (and somewhat misleading) total of two hundred and sixty-seven (267) pages. I know the count – I read every word on every page … all of them … again and again before sitting down to the keyboard.

In their rush to judgment, the jackals had to be first, had to be loudest, had to outshout everyone to make sure they were heard, or their websites got the most clicks, or their editors could preen and publicize their appearances on ESPN, Finebaum, Rome, Yahoo, and the rest. I don’t have a great deal of respect for many of them.

[As an irritating example – Christine Brennan of the Washington Post (whom I usually admire and enjoy reading) tried to equate Paterno’s legacy with that of disgraced former President Richard Nixon (the irony hopefully not lost on her of the animosity Paterno felt toward Nixon dating to 1969). In making her case, she tried to cite what she called the many positives of the Nixon years … opening relations with China, passage of Title IX legislation, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Wait a minute. What? Yes, in a discussion about a terrible child abuse case, Brennan felt it appropriate to cite a court ruling that has resulted in the _______ murder/termination/killing/aborting (choose your term) of between 30 and 50 million unborn American babies – again, while discussing a child predator case. That’s in poor taste. For good measure, Brennan – in arguing for the termination of the PSU football program – proclaimed how much she loved, loved, loved, loved college football, especially Penn State and recalled watching the famous 1973 Alabama-Penn State Sugar Bowl. Ummm … Christine, as every Finebaum listener probably knew, Alabama played (and lost to) Notre Dame in the 1973 Sugar Bowl. She meant the 1978 game, but the sloppiness is indicative of the work done by media that day. I lost a lot of respect for Ms. Brennan on that drive.]

So, the excesses of the jackals aside, what about the Freeh Report?

Here is my personal opinion of the Freeh findings:

* Louis Freeh and his the Special Investigative Counsel (SIC – the group that conducted the inquiry and developed the report) draw stronger conclusions about the role of Joe Paterno “covering up” the scandal than their own evidence warrants.

* The SIC purposefully emphasizes information most damaging to Paterno (through wording, their own italicized font, etc). I found this curious.

* While the SIC boasts of examining more than 3.5 million “electronic data and documents,” three emails refer to Joe Paterno. Read that again … three emails reference any involvement of Joe Paterno. (See Exhibits 2A, 2C, and 2F)

* Of those three emails, only one (2F) indicates any information that might be construed as damaging to Paterno. More in a minute on the emails.

* The SIC falls into a trap of looking at evidence with the advantage of hindsight (they should have had historians on the team). Freeh and his investigators already knew that Sandusky was a pervert and monster … Paterno, PSU President Graham Spanier, Vice President for Business and Finance Gary Schultz, and Athletic Director Tim Curley did not know in 1998 and could have only suspected so in 2001.

* Those who believe Paterno would face or be convicted of criminal conduct as a result of this report are – again, in my opinion, wrong. I don’t see the evidence in this report to make that claim.

Were the four primary leaders at Penn State without blame or fault in letting Sandusky’s reign continue for a decade or more? Absolutely not … but to condemn them based on the Freeh Report is premature.

Allow me to close using the method of the SIC … here is my own executive summary:

* Freeh’s conjecture that Spanier, Schultz, Curley, and Paterno “covered up” the Sandusky case to protect the institution and their jobs is just that – conjecture. None of the emails or other supporting documents (that I can find) support that claim. It seems more likely to me that the men were overly sensitive to Sandusky’s feelings (that seems foolish now, but again they were acting without knowing what we do now), and completely unaware and inept in recognizing how to handle suspected child abuse situations.

* There was absolutely no inappropriate conduct by Joe Paterno in 1998. State College police and the Department of Public Welfare investigated a complaint against Sandusky between May 4-May 30 before concluding that no crime had taken place (read the full report if you want the details of the accusation – my focus is on Paterno and his actions). The District Attorney declined to prosecute Sandusky. On May 4th, AD Curley responded to a Schultz email by noting that he had “touched base” with Paterno. Eight days later he asked for an update from Schultz, mentioning Paterno was “anxious” to know of any news. That’s the last time Paterno is mentioned. It seems reasonable to me for Paterno and Curley to want to know more information … again, there is no evidence to suggest they knew he was a predator.

* The worst part of the report for Paterno was an email Curley sent in 2001 (Exhibit 2F) that suggests (my emphasis added) Paterno might have (my emphasis added) changed the direction of the University’s response to the 2001 incident that eventually broke the case nearly a decade later. See how we can influence opinion by adding an emphasis here or there (Freeh always used this strategy to make Paterno look as bad as possible – in my opinion). Again, we benefit from hindsight and current knowledge, but the Penn State leaders – including Paterno – made a series of misjudgments in handling this allegation against Sandusky. I’ll spare the details (again I encourage you to actually read the report), but any number of people could have stopped Sandusky at this point. Mike McQueary doesn’t know what he saw based on his conflicting comments of the time and should have went straight to the police (instead of calling his father, waiting overnight to alert Paterno and then being vague in his story); Paterno should have called Curley immediately instead of waiting overnight; the list goes on. None of them called the police as they should have done and were required to do by law. Poor – and tragic – mistakes.

* Blaming Paterno and the football “culture” at Penn State for personal cowardice is taking the easy way out for Freeh. Two people actually saw Sandusky committing crimes – a janitor in 2000 and Mike McQueary in 2001 – neither went to the police. That Penn State janitor reported seeing Sandusky assaulting a child in late 2000 (in the same shower as the 1998 case), informed two other custodians, but all three failed to notify anyone else – reportedly for fear of losing their jobs. The SIC repeatedly takes the four senior leaders at Penn State to task about not informing authorities, but why are these men not held to the same standard? Because they don’t make as much money or wield as much power, they shouldn’t be expected to report what the witness claimed (a decade later) was worse than anything he saw in Korea? Unlike this man, Paterno and the others were not witnesses. The same for McQueary. He obviously panicked, grew flustered, and couldn’t think straight that night in 2001 when he walked into the Lasch Building and saw Sandusky. He should have stopped what was taking place and called the police. It’s what any of us would (or should) have done. Blaming Paterno for the personal cowardice or mistakes of these men is not right.

The sickening saga at Penn State carried out for more than a decade (and probably longer). It was tragic for the many victims of a monster. It is merely sad for Joe Paterno, a man who stood alongside John Wooden, Dean Smith, Pat Summitt, and others as one of the true leaders of intercollegiate sport in America.

Like Joe said, he should have done more.

Now the jackals have moved in to devour his remains.

[Click to view the full Freeh Report]