I don’t usually find myself caught in the middle of a media standoff between a Pulitzer-winning writer and another journalist, but this was a strange week. It all began on Sunday with a column in the Delaware County Times by Gil Spencer. In it, he drew parallels between the Jerry Sandusky fallout at Penn State with another collegiate pedophile closer to home—Scott Ward, formerly a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a subject I know well, having detailed Ward’s exploits in 2007 for Philadelphia magazine, as Spencer noted in his column. In November’s Philly Post, I wrote about the eerily identical ways in which both Ward and Sandusky went about their sick conduct: preying on disadvantaged youth, using their money and esteem to gain access and trust, and exploiting their connections to respected universities.
In the wake of the Freeh Report and the NCAA’s sanctions, Spencer pushed the comparison between Penn and Penn State even further in his column. He pointed out that Penn State has been flogged by the local and national media, and its football team has paid a steep price for the sins of those who allowed Sandusky to continue abusing children. Penn, on the other hand, walked away from the Ward disaster without so much as a smudge on its otherwise pristine Ivy League reputation. The difference, of course, is that Ward was a marketing professor, not a football coach; no one’s packing a 106,000-seat stadium to watch his students explain hierarchy-of-effects theory on Sundays. Despite numerous stories in the local papers about Ward’s criminal behavior and eventual termination, there was little outcry over Penn’s ties to the professor—in the media or from the public.
It’s hard to argue that Penn deserved much worse than it got, especially since Ward used his title to travel on the school’s dime to child-sex trafficking hotbeds across the globe. Spencer’s column nailed that point, and raised a great question—where were all of the self-righteous Penn State haters back in 2006, when Penn’s pedophile was arrested? Spencer concluded by calling out one of the school’s most esteemed alums, Buzz Bissinger, author of arguably the two greatest non-fiction stories of sports and city politics ever penned. For all of his evisceration of Joe Paterno and Penn State, why hadn’t Buzz written anything about Ward, or acknowledged that Penn, at the very least, turned a blind eye to the pederast on its payroll?
That’s when it hit the fan. Not surprising to anyone familiar with Bissinger, he didn’t take kindly to Spencer’s assertion that his feelings for Paterno and college football “poisoned his view,” or that he wasn’t “fair-minded.” Also not shocking is that Spencer says Bissinger called him three times on Sunday with “profanity-laced” rants. He said he’d never read my piece on Ward (no hard feelings, Buzz) and didn’t know anything about him. That strikes me as a little odd, given that the Inquirer and the Daily Pennsylvanian wrote about Ward frequently, both before and after my story ran. But let’s say Bissinger, busy writing best-sellers and pitching 10,000-word stories to Vanity Fair, just missed Ward completely. The fact is, as Spencer pointed out, Bissinger never wrote about Ward or his Penn enablers, yet he’s said plenty about Sandusky and Paterno. That’s a rather large hole in his knowledge of Pennsylvania collegiate pedophiles.
What I didn’t expect was Bissinger’s reaction afterward. Spencer invited him to sit down mano a mano and talk about Penn, Penn State and journalism. Bissinger agreed, but hours before the meeting, Spencer received a letter from attorney Paul A. Lauricella, who claimed Spencer’s column “falsely implied that Mr. Bissinger was a participant in some conspiracy to conceal to Mr. Ward’s criminal exploits” and “urged” him, “quite respectfully,” to pull his column from the website. Spencer responded by writing another column and posting the lawyer’s letter on his DelCo Times blog. Lauricella’s letter struck me as a lame litigious response from the poster boy of First Amendment rights. I’d think lawyering up would have been Bissinger’s last option—or at least far behind writing, ranting on his talk show, or challenging Spencer to a fist fight.
That Bissinger has a competitive, macho streak is nothing new—in 2010, he told this magazine he wanted his Inquirer column to “eradicate the memory of Steve Lopez, because I’m a competitive little shit.” But no one reading Spencer’s pieces carefully would think he’d cast Bissinger as part of some elaborate cover-up at Penn. His point was simple: Bissinger was hurling Molotov cocktails at State College, but he missed a similarly outrageous target in his own backyard. Bissinger also admitted he didn’t respond to Spencer’s two emails and a phone call seeking comment because he was “busy.”
Since then, Spencer’s posts and columns are among the DelCo Times website’s most viewed, and Bissinger has used Facebook and Twitter to clarify his position (“If the facts are correct as stated in Spencer’s article, Penn should have been taken to the woodshed and back”). I’m confident that if Bissinger knew the full story on Ward, he would have taken his shots, loudly and probably with four-letter emphasis. I also doubt that Spencer wasn’t looking to use Bissinger’s name purely for controversy’s sake. Unfortunately, now that Buzz is in fire-breathing mode, it seems unlikely he’ll wade into the Ward case, and weigh it and Penn against Sandusky and Penn State, as that would only give Spencer some credibility. That’s a shame. I think I can speak for Spencer and say we’d both really like to hear his take on the subject. Something tells me Penn wouldn’t feel the same way.