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Is Penn State's Football Culture On Trial?


And now, we turn to a very different subject. That's the trial of former Penn State University assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky. He's charged with 51 counts of child sexual abuse, which prosecutors say took place over the course of 15 years.

The prosecution rested its case yesterday and the defense has started calling witnesses in a case that's featured some graphic and disturbing testimony, as well as some complicated legal questions.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Sports Illustrated reporter David Epstein. He's been covering this story, as well as other aspects of the football program at Penn State in the wake of Sandusky's arrest and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID EPSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what do you think was the most compelling aspect of the prosecution's case?

EPSTEIN: Well, I would say just, in general, sort of the consistency, probably, of the accounts given by the alleged victims. You saw this pattern coming forward of them being children in need who came into contact with Jerry Sandusky through his Second Mile Foundation that targets youth in need and then with sort of this progression of horseplay, showering together that would become touching and then sort of much more nefarious conduct.

And there was a certain consistency to the allegations that the alleged victims outlined and I think that has been pretty impactful for people who've been following it.

MARTIN: What do you expect from the defense?

EPSTEIN: Certainly, some character witnesses, so the fact - other coaches, assistant coaches saying, hey, we've been in the shower with young boys, too. They'd be around, sometimes, because of the Second Mile Foundation working out and there was sort of a group shower and we'd seen them, too, and didn't really think anything of it.

So, certainly, a bit of the idea that this wasn't always kind of nefarious conduct targeted at sexual contact, as well as we've seen the defense team introduce this idea that they might call an expert witness to testify that Jerry Sandusky - some of his conduct was related to what's called histrionic personality disorder.

MARTIN: Yeah. Tell us about that, if you would. The judge said that the defense can argue that Sandusky suffers from something called histrionic personality disorder. What is that and what's the relevance to the charges against him?

EPSTEIN: I spoke with a doctor recently who's dealt with patients with that condition before and, essentially, it's drama-seeking, like an insatiable need to be a center of attention that often does include sort of seductive behaviors. We've seen - some of the alleged victims have said they received what they considered to be love letters from Jerry Sandusky and, of course, we've heard a lot about inappropriate touching and things like that.

And, presumably, the defense strategy would be to say, look, this is part of kind of an attention-seeking characteristic that people with histrionic personality disorder display. Even though it can involve sort of seductive behavior, it doesn't necessarily mean that he's recruiting these individuals for sexual abuse.

MARTIN: The other interesting aspect of this from a legal perspective is that, you know, the defense is expected to - and the judge has said that they can - invoke this defense or at least talk about this as part of their defense. But the prosecution has not been allowed to present testimony about why the alleged victims may have waited as long as they did to come forward. Now why is that?

EPSTEIN: That's correct. It's sort of an - from the legal experts I've spoken with, it's sort of an artifact of Pennsylvania law that doesn't exist in any other state, actually, not even in military tribunals, from what I've been told. Where, normally, in a case like this, the prosecution could call expert witnesses who deal with victims of sexual abuse to say, look, we understand it's years after the alleged abuse occurred, but that's actually quite normal for people to wait or to see if somebody else comes forward with allegations before detailing their own allegations, whether out of embarrassment or trying not to bring up these memories again.

And so, in this case, we're looking at some of the people who are testifying who were boys - now young men - waited years to come forward, but that turns out to be quite normal behavior. But that isn't going to be something that juries in Pennsylvania are going to hear. They would if they were in any other state.

MARTIN: And you're saying it's the only state that does not permit this kind of expert witness testimony in cases of rape and sexual crimes?

EPSTEIN: That's correct. It's the only state and there's been a move in their state legislature to change that. I think there was a unanimous vote, actually, in one house of the legislature to change it and it just was held up in another house, so by all accounts, I think that, you know, law is headed for a change. It just sort of hasn't happened yet in Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with David Epstein. He's a staff writer for Sports Illustrated. He's talking about the trial of Jerry Sandusky, who's charged with more than 50 counts of child sexual abuse in these shocking allegations related to his tenure at Penn State, where he is alleged to have victimized young boys over the course of many years that he was involved with as the head of a program for youth at risk.

Let's talk more broadly, David, though, about what we've learned about - if I can use this term - the culture, you know, at Penn State. I mean, for example, we heard from people like assistant coach, Mike McQueary, who says that he saw this behavior going forward. And there have been other reports over the course of leading up to this trial itself where it's been reported that other individuals saw or had reason to believe that this was going on and that there were complaints from a number of the mothers of these boys that something inappropriate was going on. So what do you draw from this after listening to all of this?

EPSTEIN: I think, for everybody, one of the most troubling aspects of this is that there were people aware of it. Like you said, Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback and assistant coach, who saw what he knew was inappropriate behavior in a shower in 2001, inappropriate contact between Jerry Sandusky and a young boy and reported it to his superiors. And it seems that sort of every step up the chain of command it went, the story was relayed with less and less severity. And now we know that prosecutors have emails that show administrators of Penn State discussing what - you know, suggesting that it wouldn't be humane to, you know, alert law enforcement authorities about the conduct with Jerry Sandusky.

So I think that, really, the troubling thing is that the Penn State football program was sort of its own little fiefdom and people were aware to varying degrees of what was going on and that that never resulted in greater action until, you know, victims started coming forward.

MARTIN: But you've been covering sports for quite a while and you've covered a number of other programs. Is this unique?

EPSTEIN: I would say yes and no, in the sense that, for a long time now, there's been a move, as football programs have gotten bigger, to sort of separate them from the university and when you bring in recruits to the university, you know, you say, this is where the students live, but this is where the football players live and this is where the football players eat and that sort of thing. And, you know, former players I've talked to at Penn State said you really could almost go through your whole career there hardly interacting with anybody who wasn't part of the football program or part of your team.

That's been a trend at a lot of universities, although I think Penn State to a greater extent. And, now, you've seen a lot of big programs sort of reeling that back and trying to reintegrate their football programs into the university as a whole.

MARTIN: Is that the message that you think that other programs are taking from this?

EPSTEIN: Absolutely. I think you'll see that, you know, that continue where you don't want, essentially, the athletic director to be the last word on what comes in and out of the athletic department.

MARTIN: David Epstein is a staff writer for Sports Illustrated. He wrote extensively about Jerry Sandusky and football at Penn State in the wake of Mr. Sandusky's arrest for child sexual abuse and he's been following events at the trial and he was kind enough to bring us up-to-date from our NPR studios in New York.

David Epstein, thanks so much for speaking with us.

EPSTEIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.