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“Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.” — William James

Eric Tassone writes:

Probably not blog-worthy/blog-appropriate, but have you heard Bill James discussing the Sandusky & Paterno stuff? I think you discussed once his stance on the Dowd Report, and this seems to be from the same part of his personality—which goes beyond contrarian . . .

I have in fact blogged on James (many times) and on Paterno, so yes I think this is blogworthy.

On the other hand, most readers of this blog probably don’t care about baseball, football, or William James, so I’ll put the rest below the fold.

What is legendary baseball statistician Bill James doing, defending the crime-coverups of legendary coach Joe Paterno? As I wrote in my earlier blog on Paterno, it isn’t always easy to do the right thing, and I have no idea if I’d behave any better if I were in such a situation. The characteristics of a good coach do not necessarily provide what it takes to make good decisions off the field.

In this sense even more of the blame should go to the Penn State administration, who put Paterno in a position for which he was clearly unqualified: they deferred to him on decisions of whether to report violent crimes to the police. One reason administrators get paid the big bucks is to make the tough decisions. If they can’t do that, they should resign—in this case, maybe in 1998 or so, not in 2012. An administrator who can’t say no has about as much business staying in office as does a professor who neither teaches big does research, or a coach who doesn’t go to the games.

But that’s all easy. Anyone can criticize these guys now that the facts are public and the correspondence has been released. In the above-linked story, Craig Calcaterra writes:

Any number of people could have stopped Sandusky. It has been conclusively proven that Paterno and many other members of the Penn State hierarchy had sufficient information as far back as 1998 and without question as soon as 2002 . . .

So, nothing special about Paterno here. As in the Milgram experiment, behaving like a monster (or so it seems from the outside) was actually the norm.

The real question is, What was Bill James thinking when he wrote:

They kept it quiet because they had no idea what was happening . . . they just thought they were dealing with a little misunderstanding . . . people who are responsible for it are the media

That’s just goofy. To say that the media were responsible for Paterno’s behavior is like saying that, if I go out and slug someone with my NSF-funded Kaypro, that it’s the NSF’s fault for enabling me. To put it another way: it may very well be that, without the support of the press, Paterno wouldn’t have had the power that allowed him to deflect criminal investigations. On the other hand, this doesn’t really comport with the other part of James’s statement, where he says that Paterno “had very few allies. He was isolated. He was not nearly as powerful as people imagine him to have been.” The whole blame-the-media thing seems to be based on the idea that the media created the Paterno monster and so is to blame, but now James is claiming that Paterno wasn’t powerful at all.

So what up with Bill James? Calcaterra writes that James is “being a contrarian because [he likes] being a contrarian.” But I don’t think that’s the whole story. In his writings, Bill James has no problem agreeing with the herd if he thinks the herd is right. But this time, James is doing the full Scott Adams.

As I wrote in my article for Baseball Prospectus (if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, click on the link and search on “Inside-Out”), Bill James originally defined himself explicitly as an outsider but, as his fame and connections have grown, he now identifies with the sports establishment. He worked for players in contract disputes, now he works for management. The ultimate outsider is now in the clubhouse. He’s moved from defending Pete Rose and Mark McGwire to defending Joe Paterno.

Tassone adds:

I [Tassone] wonder if James’ hostility to the media has increased as well—I listened to the audio (well, not terribly closely) and he went on a tangent about how much the media (eg, SI) had praised Sandusky back in the day, and how that was part of what was animating the media to ‘get him’ now—James implied (or maybe even outright said) this was the media sorta covering up (?).

One more thing is James’s interest in sports history. Back 50 or 100 years ago, baseball was run by a bunch of mix of moralists and tough guys, and it’s easy to imagine all sorts of criminal behavior being shielded by the old boys’ network. Compared to, say, Ty Cobb, Joe Paterno doesn’t look so bad. So maybe James feels that modern sports figures should due held to the same standards that we apply to various old-timers.

At some level, I have to admire James for saying something that he must know will make him look really bad. On the other hand, there’s a reason it makes him look bad. That’s contrarianism for you. (Similar issues arise for defenders of other compromised celebrities such as Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, etc etc.)

P.S. I decided to be cute, blogger-style, and title this post using an appropriate quote from William James. I googled *William James quote* and got this. Amazingly enough, almost all of the quotes on the first page of this link seemed appropriate for the Joe-Paterno-Bill-James story. Here goes:

A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain.
William James

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.
William James

A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.
William James

Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.
William James

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
William James

Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.
William James

An act has no ethical quality whatever unless it be chosen out of several all equally possible.
William James

Be willing to have it so. Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.
William James

Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.
William James

Belief creates the actual fact.
William James

Compared to what we ought to be, we are half awake.
William James

Do something everyday for no other reason than you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.
William James

Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.
William James

Also some relevant lines from the later pages of William James quotes:

Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.
William James

Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.
William James

I will act as if what I do makes a difference.
William James

If any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick.
William James

If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.
William James

In the dim background of mind we know what we ought to be doing but somehow we cannot start.
William James

Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.
William James

Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver.
William James

It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.
William James

It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.
William James

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
William James

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.
William James

Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.
William James

And, finally:

The aim of a college education is to teach you to know a good man when you see one.
William James

Or maybe we should end with this one:

It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.
William James

Or this:

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.
William James

Or maybe this:

When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.
William James


  1. Greg says:

    Nice post! As a side note, the line “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” comes from W. K. Clifford; James quoted it in “The Will to Believe” in order to argue _against_ it.

  2. Dan says:

    Count me as one reader that is interested in baseball, football, and Bill James.

    I thought the Freeh Report was pretty damning to Paterno. Not sure how you can defend him at this point. It wasn’t just that they didn’t do enough – they actively tried to cover it up. Huge difference, obviously.

  3. dmk38 says:

    I was going to say something about tension between Bayesianism & idea that “faith” is required to believe something open to theoretical doubt. Then I remembered it’s *Rev.* Bayes so I guess there’s no tension. How about instead the idea that if James’ quote is right then Popper’s conception of scientific proof–which treats every proposition one accepts on the basis of scientific evidence as permanently subject to doubt– involves more faith than religion. In other words, the quote is absurd: it doesn’t get what it means to believe *or* what it means to take something on faith. Weird because James was a genius…

  4. Graef says:

    Faith is a cop-out.

    If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding it can’t be taken on its own merits.

  5. More Scott Adams mentions!

  6. ps. Looking at that old post, I still think “fraac” is Scott Adams! Hey fraac: Come clean!

  7. mpledger says:

    I still am really unclear what Paterno did that was illegal or immoral. He found out through hearsay that Sandusky was behaving inappropriately with minors. These things were reported to campus police and nothing came of it. At that point don’t you have to act towards Sandusky as if he’s innocent until proven guilty? He then hears evidence of very inappropriate behaviour and the next day reports it in turn to his boss. The case doesn’t go anywhere so you’d assume there wasn’t anything to it e.g. for all Paterno knew the witness could be lying for reasons of his own.

    Now, in hindsight, in wake of Sandusky’s convictions, we can analyse Paterno’s behaviour but all the information we have now, Paterno didn’t have then (i.e. we anlysing the posterior as if it’s the prior).

    The people most at fault are the people who were direct witnesses and didn’t report it to the police. They did nothing because it might disadvantage themselves or schemed about who to tell so as not to disadvantage themselves.

    [For what it’s worth, I didn’t know Penn State existed until I heard an American Life story last year about campus partying at Penn State]

    • Andrew says:


      See, for example, here. Just for example:

      In 1999, at which time Paterno, Schultz, Curley and Spanier were all aware of the incident with Victim 6 the year before, Jerry Sandusky was given the choice of retiring, or staying on indefinitely.

      In an email from Tim Curley to Spanier and Schultz, Curley wrote that “Joe did give him the option to continue to coach as long as he was the coach.” . . .

      There’s lots more. As I noted above, it isn’t always easy to do the right thing, and I have no idea if I’d behave any better if I were in such a situation. The characteristics of a good coach do not necessarily provide what it takes to make good decisions off the field. . . . nothing special about Paterno here. Nonetheless, he did some bad things.

      • mpledger says:

        I don’t think that comment attributed to Paterno is in context. Sandusky was told he wouldn’t be head coach by Paterno (prior to all known victims) and Sandusky had to decide what to do about his future – stay move retire. Sandusky talked about retirement but Paterno meant he didn’t have to do anything that drastic, he could stay and coach while Paterno was still coach. IIRC in 1999 there had be an investigation and Sandusky behaviour had been deemed by Police (campus police?) to be inappropriate rather than illegal.

        I skim read the report and I thought it was pretty weak in tying any evidence to Paterno. All Paterno’s words were given as e-mail hearsay and we didn’t hear what Paterno originally said and in what context. There could have been all sorts of caveats not reported e.g. “If Sandusky is innocent then I’ll keep him on” gets turned into “Joe says he’ll keep him on”.

        I’ll guess we’ll have to wait for the book.

    • Dan says:

      As I stated earlier, it wasn’t that Paterno didn’t do enough – it appears that he actively participated in a cover-up.

  8. Eric Tassone says:

    By the way, the Red Sox (Bill James’ employer) told his to stop opining on this topic:

  9. Steve Sailer says:

    James has a track record of being wrong about complicated cases with a sample size of one: e.g., his defense of Pete Rose against charges of betting on baseball games.

    More seriously, Bill James’ response (or, more accurately, non-response) to the long-running steroid scandal in baseball can best be described as corrupt. He ignored it for years, got himself a nice job with the Red Sox, and won a World Series with two juiced-up sluggers. In contrast, Tom Boswell of the Washington Post accused Jose Canseco of being on steroids in 1988, a decade and a half earlier.

    • Andrew says:

      Yes, I remember that James defended Pete Rose and the steroid dudes. On the other hand, he came down hard on Joe Jackson (saying something along the lines of, Jackson should get into the Hall of Fame, but only after the Hall admits . . . and then he gave a long list of people like Mark Belanger, Harry Caray, and Babe Ruth’s mother who should get in before they consider Joe Jackson).

      The only common thread I can think of here is that James gives his greatest admiration for guys who play hard to win. Pete Rose and Mark McGwire, they really really wanted to win. Joe Jackson, not so much. I also remember James having some offhand remark about Steve Sax being a goofball and not hard-core enough to be a truly great player. I don’t know Bill James’s position on Jose Canseco, but he might be torn between wanting to excuse Canseco’s juicing and being annoyed at Canseco’s lack of baseball intensity.