ESPN's Jeremy Schaap: Giving a Voice to Penn State's Victims

Amidst an American media with a seemingly untaintable reverence for Penn State's legendary football coach, Schaap has stood alone in holding Joe Paterno's feet to the fire.
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Reporting balls and strikes is easy. ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap is pushing a lot deeper.

While others at his sports channel were honing their catch phrases, or providing an inside look at a star point guard's amazing work ethic, Schaap was headed to Bahrain to spotlight the American ally for torturing a soccer star who spoke out against the government. He has told the inspiring story of hockey player Evan Kaufmann, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, who is finding new life in the German hockey leagues. And he has given voice to Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, a rising All-Star and a survivor of sexual abuse.

Most notably, amidst an American media with a seemingly untaintable reverence for Penn State's legendary football coach, Schaap has stood alone in holding Joe Paterno's feet to the fire. His recent reporting has challenged the Penn State Board of Trustees' excuses and obfuscations. While most reporters have bathed their reports with weasel words like "wrongdoing" and "alleged misconduct," Schaap stood before the camera and called Paterno an "accessory to Jerry Sandusky's crimes" who, for 13 years, refused to act while his defensive coordinator raped young boys.

Schaap spoke with me about the Penn State scandal, his human rights reporting and his commitment to giving an uncensored voice to victims of abuse.

Schaap: With Penn State, it's my job to describe for viewers exactly what happened here. There's a line of course. We are basic cable. And I know that kids are watching. So you do ask yourself, "How many details of rape and sodomy do you want to give?" Still, I try to be as blunt as possible. I look at the coverage from other reporters, and the level of self-censorship, it drives me insane. All this talk of "inappropriate behavior" and "immoral conduct," weak language that fogs things up to the point where you don't even know what they're talking about anymore.

Kors: The language does matter.

Schaap: It does. Absolutely it does. And I think what happens, especially when reporters are covering legends like Paterno, is there's a tendency to be too polite, too deferential, even obsequious at times. But in this case, if you were really paying attention from Day 1, what was happening here was absolutely clear. It all followed a template directly from the Catholic Church, where officials' only interest was in protecting the institution and, by extension, protecting themselves. As this story rolled out, a blind man could have seen what was going on.

Kors: I think part of the problem—and I've seen this over and over in covering the military—is that beat reporters don't want to piss off high-level sources, or they'll lose access. So they hold their tongues.

Schaap: That's right. It's a problem that's been going on forever. With each piece, you ask yourself, "What bridges am I going to burn here? How much of the story am I willing to sacrifice to preserve my relationship with this source?" I'm lucky: I'm not a beat reporter. I don't depend on the same, high-level sources for my reports. So I don't have to take those questions into consideration. But it is ironic because for those that do, and do censor their own stories, their high-level contacts end up being worthless because they never end up reporting the harder truths they've gotten access to.

Kors: Seems like most sports reporting is aiming much lower anyway. There's a pattern: sports highlight, sassy catchphrase, cut to commercial.

Schaap: (Schaap laughs.) Yeah. It's true. I think it's part of the culture of this country. There is good sports reporting going on—at Real Sports, at E:60—but American sports reporters are not as aggressive as they should be. I saw this firsthand in 2006 at the Torino Olympics, when the [Wayne] Gretzky gambling scandal was blowing up. Gretzky held a press conference to explain, to settle things down, and the Canadian media just hammered him. Here is one of the most revered figures in all of Canada, and they treated him like Mike Wallace tackling a corrupt business executive. Americans, I think, are trained to expect more politeness from their sports reporters.

Kors: You described Paterno as "an accessory to Sandusky's crimes" and called his remaining supporters "sycophantic dead-enders." When former coach Mike McQueary testified in court that he witnessed a young boy being raped by Sandusky in 2001 and reported the crime to Paterno, you repeated McQueary's testimony in notably graphic terms. Did any producers from ESPN ever say to you, "You've gone too far. You can't say this"?

Schaap: No. Nobody's ever said, "Change your language" or "You can't say this." And with McQueary's testimony, if you play polite with those details, you're doing a huge disservice to your viewers. Because McQueary's testimony—what he saw and what he told Paterno—that was the crux of the case.

Kors: That's right. Paterno said that one reason he didn't go to the police was because McQueary's description of the assault was vague and limited.

Schaap: And McQueary said as much in his testimony, that he blunted his language for the 75-year-old man. But he was insistent that he got the point across. The entire foundation of the case for Paterno is that McQueary didn't truly, fully explain what he saw. And remember, this was 2001. When you learn that in 1998, long before McQueary's report, Paterno was very well informed about Sandusky's abuse of children, then everything Paterno says about 2001 collapses.

Kors: Are you a reporter or a commentator?

Schaap: (Schaap laughs.) That's something I've given a lot of thought to. At the beginning of my career, I started out with a strict "No opinion" policy. Now I'm covering news events, but I also do commentaries for SportsCenter. I'd like to think my reporting is in the tradition of Jimmy Breslin or my father. The goal is to communicate the facts, to synthesize what you know into one report.

Kors: Your reporting on these pieces could be shallower. Like your recent profile of [Mets pitcher] R.A. Dickey. That piece could have been, "Hey, looks like Dickey's racking up a lot of wins" without ever mentioning the sexual abuse he suffered as a child.

Schaap: Well, that's the heart of his story. And it's amazing that he's willing to talk about it so honestly and so thoughtfully. You know, New York magazine did a piece on him the other day and didn't even mention the abuse. And I thought, how do you do that? Struggling with that abuse is how he became who he is. When I do stories, I want to tell the bigger picture.

Kors: To be more than just a sports reporter.

Schaap: Actually, being "just a sports reporter" has played to my advantage a lot of times. Last year we went to the Middle East to do a story on Bahrain. At that time, they weren't letting any Western journalists into the country. So we said, "Hey, we're just doing a story about your soccer team." The Bahraini government figured, "Oh, well, okay. It's just about soccer," and they let us in. What we didn't mention is that the story was about the Bahraini soccer stars who were tortured by the government for speaking out during the Arab Spring. Once we got in the country, that's the story we covered.

Kors: Is there a theme to your reporting?

Schaap: I think so. I like doing stories that are tangentially about sports, that get at something larger. Stories about people who don't have a voice.

Kors: Let me read you a tweet you posted this week: "All the talk about tearing down the JoePa statue is incomplete. It should be replaced by a statue dedicated to the boys who were raped by Sandusky and abandoned to his sickness by Paterno et. al. Put it right there in front of Beaver Stadium."

Schaap: That's right. And not to shame Sandusky or the program. It's to address this problem of sexual abuse, which nobody wants to discuss. We should celebrate those children for their courage in speaking out. Some people say, "Oh, but that would offend the sensibilities of our fans." That attitude is how we got to a place where Paterno and [Penn State athletic director Tim] Curley were so squeamish they could brush all this away, a place where the church in Boston and Philadelphia can abuse its children and duck the consequences successfully. If we can make some permanent statement about what happened here, why not do it? To brush that opportunity aside, that's cowardly.

Kors: Yeah.

Schaap: Dickey confirmed this too. Abused kids, he said, they pick up on all this. They learn that this is something they should be ashamed of and something society wants them to be silent about. They start thinking, "If no one wants to hear me talk about this, then I must be damaged. Otherwise, why the cloak of secrecy and silence?" I think Dickey is so brave for speaking out, for being so public. What he's doing is going to change a lot of people's lives.

Kors: The New York Times just ran a piece about the NCAA, how they're hemming and hawing about applying sanctions to Penn State's football program. Of course, they didn't need to hem or haw when it came to Reggie Bush and USC. They cracked the whip there pretty damn fast.

Schaap: Yeah, the NCAA sanctions, to be honest, I could care less. I don't care if Penn State football went away forever. Or if they don't get a scholarship. Or can't play a night game. It's almost a way for people to not talk about what happened here, to get back to talking about football. People say that punishing them with recruitment changes, making it tough for Penn State to be a player next year in the Big Ten, would send a strong message. As if learning that children were molested by one of the top coaches wasn't enough to make a point. I understand why some people say they shouldn't play. But the whole topic, it's insignificant. It diminishes the issue.

Kors: Another aspect of the TV coverage that has really irked me is the way words like "character" and "honorable" are tossed around like nothing. Paterno, we hear, was a man of character because he made sure his players did their homework. He was honorable because he donated to the library. Even McQueary, some said, was really a courageous man and shouldn't be judged on this one incident. Well, I'm sorry, but the only time you know whether someone is courageous or has character is when those qualities are tested.

Schaap: I know. I agree. That language has become an ingrained part of sports reporting. I remember covering a Nebraska football game, and the commentators spoke about how courageous the kids were for mounting a comeback after a bad first half. And I'm thinking, you can't extrapolate that from this game. No matter how many wins you have, no matter how many points you've scored. Character, courage, honor: these have nothing to do with the scoreboard. Reporters always talk about a "courageous performance." We have to get away from that language.

Kors: And it's not just sports. Tune in to American Idol, and you'll hear the judges say, "Oh, that was a courageous performance." Since when is performing a Cyndi Lauper song a sign of courage?

Schaap: (Schaap laughs.) If there's another thing to come out of this scandal, it's that: that we don't really know these guys—the players, the coaches—even though we see them on the sidelines. And we can't make judgments about what kind of people they are based on their actions on the field. Too much of our sports reporting has become hagiography.

Kors: That blind hero worship is part of the fan culture too, especially on campus. I remember watching the Penn State students riot after Paterno was fired. To think this was my country, my generation, I just felt so ashamed.

Schaap: You do have to wonder sometimes about our values. Of course, there was no golden age of values way back when. But this impulse to defend the establishment, to protect the institution against all outsiders, it seems stronger now than ever before. Especially in college football. There's a tribalism there that you just don't see in other sports. Those students should have been rioting to get Paterno fired. I'd hope that a lot of the kids who did riot would want to take back what they did. But my hunch is that they'd just double down on it. It is shameful.

Kors: Is there a broader lesson to the Penn State scandal?

Schaap: Yes. That the college sports system is out of control. This scandal, I think, is an indictment of that system. It's an indictment of our culture, a culture where a football coach could effectively be the head of a major educational institution. A system where the coaches have the power because their sports generate the revenue for the other programs at the university. A cult had developed around Paterno. There's no doubt about that. And at that point, nobody could reign him in. I always thought that the image of him as this paragon of probity was all too convenient.

Kors: You think Paterno bears responsibility for what happened.

Schaap: Definitely. These monsters like Sandusky are always going to be out there. But we see over and over again people who aren't pedophiles protecting them and perpetuating their crimes, whether it's the Catholic Church or Penn State.

Kors: True.

Schaap: I hope the idol worship of our sports stars comes to an end. After they win a lot of games, it's easy to develop a mythology around them. It's time now to step back and be more careful about the way we characterize our sports stars, which isn't to say that some of them aren't wonderful human beings. But if you're going to come to that conclusion, form that conclusion from their actions off the field.

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