By Dan Shanoff
The new New York Times report on Penn State by Jo Becker is must-read. If you haven't read it yet, here it is. Go read it. Among the key details: Second Mile files are missing. (Shocking.) The Penn State lawyers never knew. (WTF?)
And this, which is the focus of the story's headline and no less than the object of the lead of the incredibly reported story:
It was a posting on a die-hard college football message board that helped investigators crack the case by leading them to McQueary for his statement of what he saw in 2002.
Consider that for a second: You're a die-hard Penn State fan hanging out on -- say -- the Scout.com "Fight On State" (or Rivals.com or any other leading PSU fan community) message boards, as you constantly and obsessively do.
One minute, some guy is seemingly trolling the boards by talking about a current Penn State coach who saw a former Penn State coach raping a kid in the Penn State locker room.
The next minute, that "troll" is the de facto hero of the investigation -- the anonymous truth-teller whose message-board ravings turn out to be THE detail that cracks the case, because investigators took it more seriously than the denizens of the message board, who almost assuredly wanted nothing to do with it.
It is a stunning twist, on several levels.
*That investigators would find their key break on a message board. That a college football message board -- long a haven for "my sister-in-law's co-worker's cousin heard from the football secretary's son's elementary school teacher that..." recruiting rumor and innuendo that always seems to be just on the wrong side of crackpot -- proves to be the most legitimate source in the entire scope of the investigation.
*That a place that likely considers itself the top 1% (top .0001%?) of Penn State die-hard fans -- people who love Penn State football so much they pay for the privilege of accessing the site to read, post and interact -- would end up being the place that implodes the program for a generation, if not forever.
(For some good context on college football message boards, check out this column by Bryan Curtis from the NYT's old sports magazine Play.)
Hopefully, this will spark new examination of the entirely retro college football message board culture -- one of the earliest and most prolific forms of sports interaction and engagement on the Web; responsible for one of the most successful start-ups in sports media (Rivals' $100M sale to Yahoo, largely on the back of its message boards and its tens of thousands of paying customers); and still one of the best sources for recruiting information (almost always far ahead of -- and often itself driving -- mainstream media reporting).
Even as online media tries to "professionalize" and improve the quality of its content -- entirely admirable -- it is remarkable that grassroots, crowd-sourced, good ol' fashioned message board trolling was responsible for cracking the Sandusky case.
Dan Shanoff is the founder of Quickish. You can reach him at dan-[at]-quickish-[dot]-com. Follow him on Twitter at @danshanoff.