Monday, April 18

ESPN's Paterno hit piece, "Untold," is refuted by the facts

Not Untold: A 1979 Sports Illustrated story mentioned the Todd Hodne incident

Ray Blehar
April 18, 2022

ESPN's Paula Lavigne's and Tom Junod's hit piece on Joe Paterno, titled "Untold," piles onto the false narrative (from the Freeh Report) that the former legendary coach and Penn State University (PSU) protected the football program at all costs.   Like the Freeh Report, "Untold" assigns sinister motives to nearly every action taken by Paterno and other PSU officials with respect to the arrest and conviction of former football player Todd Hodne.  And, like the Freeh Report, "Untold" makes its case mostly through innuendo and uncorroborated statements. 

The facts about Paterno and PSU's handling of criminal cases stand in stark contrast to the story spun by Lavigne and Junod.

1.  According to former judge Carmine Prestia, neither Paterno, nor anyone else from the football program, ever interfered in criminal investigations or asked that his players received special treatment in the 40 years he was a policeman and judge.

2. Former Penn State Faculty Senate chairs wrote that over their hundreds of years of experience they were never asked to give favorable treatment to student athletes.

3. No one from Penn State was convicted for covering up or obstructing the investigation of the Jerry Sandusky criminal case.  

But ESPN wasn't about to let those facts stand in the way of its story.

"Untold" Fallacy #1: Paterno called one of the victims

Untold uses a headline story that relied on an uncorroborated account from a victim named Karen.  She alleged that in the timeframe following the attack, she received a call from Joe Paterno asking "If she was okay".  

In an attempt to justify using Karen's uncorroborated account, the authors wrote there were no call logs kept by Paterno at the time (as if that would have been the only way to corroborate her account).

However, Karen had a roommate, Jean, who dated a PSU football player named Clyde Carson.  Karen also stated she had spent the summer going to parties that included a lot of PSU football players.  It is highly improbable that Karen would have received a phone call from Joe Paterno and not shared that information with her roommate, Jean or with Clyde.  

According to victim Betsy Sailor, Paterno was a "demigod" at the time.  

There is no dispute that Joe was probably the most famous figure in State College and on the Penn State campus, if not in the entire state of Pennsylvania.  

And after Karen got a call from Joe Paterno, she told exactly no one.

Not her roommate, Jean.  Not Clyde.  Not any of the other football players.  Not her parents.  

There is little doubt that Lavigne and Junod knew that ethically they should not use her uncorroborated account, but they weren't about to let the standards for accuracy in journalism get in the way of the story.  

They treated it as fact, then built a baseless case of witness tampering and intimidation around it.

Untold Fallacy #2:  Paterno was tampering with Karen to protect Hodne

From the column (my highlights):

We circled back to Paterno. What did she mean she knew he was involved? "He knew who I was. He knew the police were interviewing me. The trial itself I was discouraged from going to, and not necessarily by the police. And I'm trying to remember how all that went as well.

How did Paterno know her? Did he reach out? Did he call her? "I think he might have. I think he might have,'" she said. "And I'm trying to remember all those details, and I hesitate to blurt things out because I'm not totally certain about how that all went. Yeah. I think he did. I think he did. And from then on, he knew me. He would say hello to me on campus if he would see me." She went on. "I'm trying so hard to remember. It was a rather shallow conversation. It wasn't anything. But the impression I got was he knew it was that guy [Hodne] but he wanted to probe and see if I knew that it was him. I think that was kind of the gist of it. Which at the time I was really—I don't remember what I said. I don't remember too much about what I revealed or didn't reveal. I don't think I revealed much of anything." Why did she think he was asking her questions? "Oh, to protect his player," Karen said.


But the call went differently than she expected. To Karen, Paterno's call "was kind of an admission that his football player did it, and he was expecting me to move forward." Karen wanted to move forward but didn't want to forget. She was, in fact, hoping to prosecute. "He was trying to ascertain if I was going to go to [the Betsy Sailor hearing] and if the police had discovered anything concrete. My recollection is that he came out and asked me if I was going to testify—if I was planning to go to court." When Paterno called, she had hoped that he was calling out of concern for her. Instead, Karen felt he was calling out of concern for his program. "He was kind of scaring me I think a little bit," she says.

It is clear that Karen's account of the over 40 year old incident is limited at best.  She did not provide details of her attack other than what was written in a newspaper account at the time of the attack.  It is unknown whether her memories of the Betsy Sailor case are genuine or came as a result of her memory being refreshed by Lavigne and Junod.

Police records confirm that she was attacked and that her attacker's modus operandi matched Hodne's. Her roommate Jean confirmed the police investigation took place and that their apartment was dusted for fingerprints.  

Anything beyond that is uncorroborated.

ESPN's shaky case that Paterno interfering or trying to tamper is contradicted by his record of not interfering with criminal justice system dating back over 40 years.

Untold Fallacy #3:  The PSU football program got favorable treatment in the courts

While not written in those terms, the authors wrote that victim Betsy Sailor's case against Todd Hodne was a case against the "institution of Penn State football program."  

From Untold:

It was not easy for her. Betsy was but one person, still very young, daring to bring criminal charges against a Penn State football player. She had never known the power of Penn State football until she felt it firsthand—until she understood that by accusing one of its players, she had taken it on. "I felt like I had thrown dirt at the queen," she says. "I felt bad. I felt bad that one of the things that I admired about this institution, the football team, had produced this individual. They weren't at fault, but I just felt bad. I was just ... I guess I was kind of shocked that part of the university that I admired would do that."  

She had taken on the institution of Penn State football and, alone among Hodne's victims, had brought her case to court. 

The fact that Sailor's case was the only one to make it to trial was the district attorney's decision based on the evidence, not out of fealty to the University or Penn State football.

Then DA David Grine decided her case was the only one that had enough evidence to obtain a conviction because of fingerprints found at the crime scene, her identification of Hodne's Puma Clyde sneakers, and the phone call from Hodne to her off campus residence.  

In other cases, the victims did not see Hodne nor were fingerprints obtained.  Certainly, Grine could have attempted to make the case in the case of another victim (Susan) because he had phone records tied to Hodne, but prosecutors don't like to bring cases with multiple victims because they risk losing the entire case if one victim is deemed not credible. 

ESPN and Lavigne were similarly called out for her lack of knowledge about legal matters in their attempted smear of Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo.   In that story, ESPN Lavigne also used an uncorroborated account from an unnamed source to allege that prosecutors gave a former MSU basketball player, Travis Walton, favorable treatment.

Former East Lansing city attorney David Meyers responded to the ESPN story:

“I detest that a municipal case, that was resolved (eight) years ago in the normal manner, has been made into a sideshow...At no point in my role as Asst. City Attorney did Travis Walton or any other person receive preferential treatment from me as to their criminal proceedings.  East Lansing City prosecutions had previously been cleared of preferential treatment in a 2015 article by ESPN and Ms. Levine [sic].

Untold Fallacy #4:  Football and athletic programs had higher incidents of sexual violence

From Untold:

And yet the story of Todd Hodne is not simply a reminder of how much has changed since 1978. It's a reminder of how slowly change has come. It's a reminder that change didn't come until it had to. It's a reminder that, in the matter of athletic departments and sexual violence, change came because the worst that could possibly happen so often did. It's a reminder that incremental progress has occurred at the cost of indelible pain and that every law protecting students today exists because of the absence of such laws a few decades ago—an absence that gave rise to the notorious stories and impossible outrages that led to institutions and athletic departments finally being called into account.

While sexual assault cases involving football and other athletic departments often make headlines, Lavigne and Junod provided no statistics to support that sexual crimes were (or are) more prevalent among athletes than other students.   

According to her ESPN bio, Lavigne has a background in "data journalism and mining public records."

Federal Clery Act reporting makes these data of sexual assault crimes available to the public, there is no legitimate excuse for the "data" journalist not to include crime statistics to support her story.

Penn State's latest Clery Act report for the University Park campus is here.   According to the latest reports, there were 45, 39, and 28 rapes in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively.   

The lack of headlines confirms the none were perpetrated by football players over those years.

From Untold:

Lizette Olsen, who worked at the rape crisis center at the time, remembers the university broadly supporting rape prevention and awareness efforts but that "they were low-hanging fruit." It was different when dealing with specific cases, she says. "When there were instances of sexual violence where the perpetrator was someone of value, i.e., the football team, things did not go so well ... I can't actually say to you that that was an institutional response as much as it was the response of individuals in leadership who were trying to assist the football team or the athletic department."  

Olson provided no specific cases of football players or other PSU athletes to corroborate her allegation, however, there were certainly a few high profile athletes who were charged with sex crimes in recent years.

Football players Anwar Phillips (2003) and Austin Scott (2007) were both charged with sexual assault.- Phillips was acquitted and the charges were eventually withdrawn (by the accuser) against Scott.   Neither Phillips nor Scott were represented by University attorneys.

In 1999, wrestlers Nate Parker and Jean Celestin were charged with raping a woman in an off-campus apartment.  Parker was eventually acquitted, however Celestin was convicted and granted an appeal.  He was never re-tried. 

Based on that limited set of data, there were four allegations against PSU athletes and one conviction (that was later appealed).   The data reflects a higher success rate of prosecution than across the United States than a 2003 study.

In 2003, USAToday conducted a search of public records and found 168 sexual assault allegations made against professional and student athletes over a 12 year-period.  Of those, only 22 went to trial and only six resulted in convictions.   These statistics confirm the difficulty in obtaining convictions in sexual assault cases, however, they do not confirm that sexual assaults are more prevalent among athletes.

The only attempt to use statistics in Untold was to imply Penn State was covering up rape cases.  The cover-up angle relied on a single, unnamed and uncorroborated sources and faulty analysis.

From Untold:

There was a discrepancy between how institutions and advocates at Penn State talked about rapes and sexual assaults and in how they counted them at the time. A former Penn State student who gave campus orientations remembers being discouraged from telling parents of incoming freshmen how many rapes were happening in State College. Ed Nolder, an officer with the Penn State University Police at the time, says, "Rape was not a big thing then; I don't think I heard of eight rapes in my entire eight years with the police force." The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program counted a total of 12 rapes and sexual assaults at Penn State University and the borough of State College in all of 1978. The student newspaper ran an editorial that year counting 35 rapes and sexual assaults in and around Penn State as of September.

First, Ed Nolder's statistics of eight rapes in eight years would be consistent with the FBI report of 12 rapes in State College and at University Park.   University Park is a different jurisdiction than State College.  The statistics for 1978 infer that more crimes took place off-campus than on-campus.  All of Hodne's confirmed and alleged rapes took place off-campus.

The Collegian editorial counted rapes and sexual assaults in those two jurisdictions, as well as surrounding jurisdictions (e.g., Ferguson Township, College Township, etc).

Lavigne and Junod simply didn't take the time to learn the geography around PSU and that rapes occurred in other jurisdictions other than on campus and in State College borough.  

There was nothing contradictory about the reports.  Rather, every statistic referenced was based on different jurisdictions.

Fallacy Fallacy #5:  PSU and Paterno swept the Hodne case under the rug.

Beyond the announcement of Hodne's suspension from the team, neither the school nor the football program ever made a public statement of any kind about Hodne or the students he attacked. He was, after all, a player of no consequence, involved in an isolated incident. He would leave State College and never be heard from again.

Every crime involving Hodne took place off-campus and was under the jurisdiction of the State College Borough police department.   The University Park police would have no record of the crimes, therefore University officials would have little to no knowledge of the incidents nor have reason to be informed of them.

There was no legal basis or even an ethical basis for PSU to make statements about Hodne's conviction. 


While "Untold" was supposed to be a story written to give voices to the co-eds at PSU who didn't receive justice after being victimized by Todd Hodne, the reality of the situation is that Lavigne and Junod used the victims in an attempt to convince readers that Paterno and the University did not cooperate with investigators and attempted to silence or intimidate the victims.

Lavigne has made her career on writing factually challenged and sensationalized stories of sexual assault on campus.  

She won a Peabody Award for her January 2018 Outside The Lines report claiming that Michigan State University's Tom Izzo and Mark D'Antonio mishandling sexual assault cases involving their athletes.   Lavigne claimed there was "a pattern of widespread denial, inaction and information suppression." 

ESPN stood by her reporting on D'Antonio even though it was thoroughly debunked by a the Jones Day report that was published in June 2017.

In both instances, we found that senior leaders within the football program and the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics (Athletic Department) complied with the RVSM policy by promptly and accurately reporting the information they learned about the underlying incidents to departments within the University that are tasked with investigating and responding to such incidents. We also found no evidence that senior leaders within the football program or Athletic Department attempted to impede, cover up, or obstruct the Office of Institutional Equity’s (OIE’s) investigation into the underlying incidents. 

One might ask how could Paula Lavigne make such claims against D'Antonio when an independent report confirmed he handled the situations appropriately?

The answer is that Lavigne wasn't going to let facts get in the way of her story at Michigan State just like she didn't let them get in the way of her story about Hodne, PSU, and Paterno.

Sadly, that is the state of "journalism" today. 

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