Shop Talk: Scandals Hit Penn State, Herman Cain

The Barbershop guys weigh in on the Penn State scandal, Rick Perry's debate flub, and Herman Cain's handling of sexual harassment accusations. Host Michel Martin hears from former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, as well as author Jimi Izrael, attorney Arsalan Iftikhar and sports reporter Pablo Torre.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney, Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellow, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

PABLO TORRE: Yo, what's up?

MICHAEL STEELE: I'm good. I don't need - took a little bit too much off the top.

IZRAEL: I can't believe this. We got A-train. We got P dog and we got the man of steel, first time in.

MARTIN: Man of steel.

STEELE: Well, it's real pleasure and honor to be here.

IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop.

STEELE: Good to be here.

IZRAEL: Listen, let's get things started off with one of the worst scandals ever in college football that let to the football powerhouse, Penn State, actually firing legendary coach Joe Paterno. According to reports, Penn State's former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, is charged with sexually abusing boys for more than a decade. The details are still developing, but the allegations are heinous and hard to hear, Michel.

MARTIN: I think this is a good place to say that, you know, this part of the conversation might not be appropriate for everybody, so very young ears - you know, use discretion, but for those who are not familiar with the details, current Penn State receivers coach Mike McQueary testified, when he was a graduate student assistant, that he personally witnessed an assault in the shower. And McQueary said that he told Paterno all about it. Paterno informed his bosses, but he did not call the police.

IZRAEL: And Michel, for all of the outrage about the scandal on campus, lots of folks at Penn State are mad about the firing of the man they call JoePa. Students rioted on Wednesday night and early Thursday morning and the university says threats have been made ahead of tomorrow's game. McQueary will not be on the sidelines tomorrow because of those threats.

The governor has made a statement. Michel, we got some tape. Yeah?

MARTIN: Yeah, we do. Here's Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett during a press conference yesterday. He's specifically addressing the violence by some students on campus. Here it is.

GOVERNOR TOM CORBETT: I believe in your right to assemble and your right to express your opinions. I do not believe, nor do I think anybody believes, in your right to violence. There is no such thing.

TORRE: Wow.

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. Now, some Penn State critics are calling for the death penalty for that football program. Essentially, that means the NCAA would ban the school from competing in that sport for at least one year. So far, the NCAA president, Mark Emmert, he says, well, they're just monitoring what's going on and not making any judgments yet.

Oh, man, Pablo, listen. You're our main sports guy. What should the NCAA do?

TORRE: Man, what the NCAA should do is almost a secondary question to me. I mean, the death penalty for context was applied to schools, like SMU was the last big example in the '80s when they were riffed with NCAA college football specific violations, meaning boosters paying off players. To be clear, this is in a whole different universe. I mean, we can take the perhaps out of perhaps the worst scandal in college sports. At least, in my mind, this is, period, the worst scandal in college sports.

And the NCAA - I mean, if they were to take away, you know, college football from Penn State for up to five years or up to two years, whatever they can do, that's fine with me just because this is a problem that so blew the minds of everybody who pays attention to this sport.

I mean, for context, Joe Paterno was the saint of college sports. He was there for 45 years and not only was he the most sainted college football coach ever, he was the most powerful man at that university. I mean, it's telling. All these riots - they're not rioting about the president of the university being fired. They're rioting about their football coach, who was there for decades and decades and built this campus up on a hill, as it was for so many.

And so, for that to go on under their noses for decades and for Joe Paterno to have been directly informed of at least one case, allegedly, in 2002 and perhaps another one in 1998, is just - it's absurd and it defies any sort of boundaries we sort of had in terms of what could go wrong in college football.

MARTIN: Yeah. I'm really interested to hear - you said that this isn't really about football because we had this very interesting debate in the office about this, where the conversation - and I don't want to, you know, call names here, but the conversation was about - well, what will Joe Paterno's legacy be? And I don't care.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

IZRAEL: Right. Right.

MARTIN: I don't care.

TORRE: Who cares? I mean exactly.

MARTIN: You know, Mr. Chairman, what about you? I mean do you care?

STEELE: I agree that I don't give a rat's you-know-what about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEELE: What bothers me the most is that you have young boys who were abused within a system that benignly neglected their responsibility...

TORRE: Yes.

STEELE: ...to go to the appropriate authorities. Who gives a hoot about your boosters and the impression that's going to be created, the scandal at the time? What's worse, the scandal now or the scandal then? Do you want a scandal around the idea that you caught someone doing something inappropriate with young boys or do you want the scandal of having done nothing about that? And that's what they're faced with. So I think they strip the program completely. I think they shut it down. I think they do a full board investigation throughout the university to see how far this thing reaches, who knows, who knew what when. And I don't think you play football there until this thing is cleaned up, because they've got - you think they've got a problem now, wait till those right or nine parents decide to bring the civil suit that will come.

IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm. Right.

STEELE: The Catholic Church has already spent close to $2 billion since the 1990s in dealing with this type of litigation. And so this is something that is going to have a long-term ripple effect. Every dollar that comes into this university is going to go to those kids in the future.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you briefly, because I know the other guys want to weigh in here. But Mr. Chairman, you were trained as a - you were in a seminarian at some point in the...

STEELE: Yeah. I was a Augustinian friar, yeah.

MARTIN: Right, in the Catholic Church.

STEELE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I wondered if you have any - can you even put your mindset in Mike McCreary's place?

STEELE: Yeah, I can. And I'm glad you asked that because I...

MARTIN: You know?

STEELE: ...thought about that, because what you're seeing here is it's a generational difference. Our sensitivities have been heightened since the 1980s, the 1990s about this kind of abuse, similar to how we've now come to appreciate spousal abuse and other types of abuse that goes on within families and communities. Institutional neglect of these types of issues is historic - I mean it's not something that's a recent thing.

So I think what you see at one level - not to excuse it in no way - but you see an institution, Paterno, you know, an older gentleman, these types of issues or, you know, we just kind of sweep it under the carpet. I told the president of the university, oh, I told the closest internal authorities and let them handle it. The sense that you have an obligation to go beyond those internal authorities to the real authorities who can do something about this just isn't in place.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, what boggles my mind is, you know, Mike McCreary, who is now the wide receiver's coach, you know, when he was a graduate assistant, he was 28 years old on a Friday night, walks into the locker room and he sees 60-year-old Sandusky taking a shower with a 10-year-old boy, having sex with him and had to go home and ask his dad what to do. I mean for me that boggles my mind.

STEELE: It's troubling.

IFTIKHAR: Like if it was a 10-year-old girl would he have to run home and ask his dad whether to report it or not?

STEELE: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: And so, you know, I've actually, I read the 23-page indictment word for word. It is absolutely mind-boggling. You know, in 1998 Sandusky said that he was going - promised to stop taking showers with children. I mean that should be the one strike and you're out.

STEELE: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: The fact that this was allowed to happen in the..

STEELE: Actually it should be included that you have a problem. Oh, I promise not to do this.

MARTIN: Right. Yeah.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: But Jimi, as a father too.

IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: I must tell, you as a parent I just, I am so struggling with myself not to make judgments about because I feel that, you know, about everybody involved, because as a parent I think if this was my child and I knew that another adult male - there's apparently a janitor too observed this and did nothing to help my child, I don't know so...

IZRAEL: Yeah. So...

MARTIN: ...what - OK, Jimi?

IZRAEL: ...all these people that witnessed this and, you know, mores change. To your point, man of steel, but wrong is still wrong.

STEELE: Wrong is still wrong.

IZRAEL: Isn't it?

STEELE: Exactly.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

TORRE: Right.

IZRAEL: I mean you know something's wrong with that picture you walk in the shower and you see this going on, so this was some cause for alarm. This wasn't a cause to go home and have a thoughtful moment. You know, and that's so troubling to me that that's the world we're living in anymore, where people have to go home and consort with people about what's wrong. It's clearly wrong, man.

STEELE: Right.

MARTIN: But I don't know that that is the world we're living in. The only piece I want to just to add about this, and I just want to get feedback because the chairman said he thinks they should shut the program down. I'm curious about what the rest of you guys think. But for every one of these I still go back to all the times when people do intervene when they didn't have to that we never hear about.

IZRAEL: OK.

STEELE: So I did want to sort of give an opportunity - I'm thinking about an incident when I was, my car in that terrible snowstorm last year ran into a ditch in the middle of the night. I was six hours trying to get home and, you know, stranger came along who, you know, drove me home and realized I was frightened to get into the car with him. Like who wouldn't be in a dark street 11 o'clock at night...

Right.

MARTIN: ...who put me on the phone with his wife so that I could be reassured. I mean, you know, and my kids are home in a cold dark house, I mean, you know what I mean? You can imagine and I'm not a child obviously, but so I'm thinking yes, well, I'm really struggling here. I'm thinking of all the people who have stepped up who've never been recognized for it.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: So I do want to keep that in mind.

STEELE: Yeah.

MARTIN: But anyway, Arsalan, briefly everybody, do you think that Chairman said, shut it down? Arsalan, yes or no?

IFTIKHAR: Hell, yes.

MARTIN: Jimi?

IZRAEL: Absolutely. Shut it down.

MARTIN: Pablo?

TORRE: I mean for now, I would that I would completely agree with that. You know, this is a failure of leadership. You know, I mean it's worth stressing also Penn State, 40,000 students there. I mean so many good people there who had nothing to do with this. But the people at the top, that slate needs to be wiped clean.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR NEWS. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Now I know you're going to get a lot of traction on our next topic, Michael.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Not for nothing. It's how Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry stepped in it.

STEELE: Oh, God.

IZRAEL: Those were his words during a debate on Wednesday. Michel, we got a clip, yeah?

MARTIN: I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And this is OK, we're, you know...

STEELE: It's tasteful.

MARTIN: Well, to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: To you, not to everyone, I think. Here it is. He got - well, maybe. He was talking about his plans to shrink the federal government. He says look, if I'm in there this is what happens, and he got a little stuck. Here's the tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRIMARY DEBATE)

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: commerce, education and the - what's the third one there? Let's see.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RON PAUL: You mean five.

PERRY: Oh, five.

PAUL: Yeah, it's five.

PERRY: OK. So commerce, education and the...

MITT ROMNEY: EPA?

PERRY: EPA. There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's not get (unintelligible).

JOHN HARWOOD: Seriously?

MARTIN: See, what you heard there was Ron Paul trying to help him out.

STEELE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Yeah. It's like the blind leading the naked.

MARTIN: And CNBC moderator John Harwood saying like really?

IZRAEL: Mm. Wow.

MARTIN: So...

STEELE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Wow. Thanks, Michel. Perry spent almost a minute trying to come up with that answer but he couldn't and he spent Thursday morning trying to explain that to every network but BET. Now he even went on Letterman last night with a top list of reasons for the flub. But a lot of folks are saying, you know, it's too late for his campaign. And I'm one of those people. You know, I'm one of those - if you're not good at something and it's clear and apparent you're not good at something, at a certain point you just embarrass yourself by going on. You know, it's kind of like watching it together, all respect due, it's kind of like George Jefferson and Mr. Willis. You know, they, you know, I mean...

STEELE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: ...it's a real mess.

STEELE: It's a real mess.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Come on Michael, what you're trying to say here, man?

STEELE: Well, I'll tell you, I remember watching that and it's one of those moments that slows time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Right.

STEELE: ...and you're sitting there and you're going oh my God. Shut up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEELE: Just drop it. Move on. And you can hear, if you go back and lay the tape, you can hear some of the other candidates going, oh my, you know just...

IZRAEL: Yeah.

STEELE: Just stop. And it's unfortunate and everyone's had that. I mean, you know, I'm sure we've in our various responsibilities in life at public moment froze. But that's OK if you're talking about - if I'm talking something here that our activists have done, you know, Arsalan has done, other have done, but this is your plan.

IZRAEL: Yeah.

STEELE: This is your thing.

TORRE: Exactly.

MARTIN: Does this disqualify him in your view?

STEELE: Yeah. It's not disqualifying. I think just cumulative, and cumulatively speaking, yeah, if people have a judgment. Now keep in mind that Rick Perry was on the slow down with the base given his policy positions on immigration. So that bleed had already begun. I think more broadly speaking, the public now looking at the totality of his presentation have been, how should we put it, underwhelmed. And I think that in terms of the campaign, yeah, it's kind of the last nail in the coffin.

MARTIN: Speaking of disqualifying though, I have to ask you about Herman Cain, since we have you here.

STEELE: Sure.

MARTIN: Because there have been...

STEELE: It's an issue. It's a...

MARTIN: Is it an issue? He seems to feel like nobody's allowed to talk about it.

STEELE: You know what? I think folks need to understand that there are two approaches her that - and we judge against one and don't really understand the other. We're typically used to a politician coming out, getting caught in the situation - and I'm thinking most immediately of Mr. Wiener, Congressman, former Congressman Wiener - who, you know, they kind of do the backstroke and they kind of, you know, look at the landscape and try to figure out who does this impact, how does it impact me, the votes, the whole thing.

You're dealing with a businessman. He is only accountable to one group of people and that's his shareholders. And so his approach is going to be look, we dealt with this inside. I don't do what the big deal is. I'm moving on. And that's what you're seeing from Herman. He's not bringing that political acumen to the situation, which is a good thing in the sense that it revs up the base and they're fired up to see him being so stern and domineering in this. But it's bad because the perception is the lack of sensitivity to the women, et cetera.

MARTIN: Arsalan, you're a civil rights attorney. I'm interested in how you read and your explanation should make sense to me, but...

IFTIKHAR: You know what's interesting to me is the hiring of a very, very prominent celebrity lawyer named Lin Wood as his attorney. Now for those of us in the legal profession who know Lin Wood, Lin Wood is actually one of the preeminent defamation and libel lawyers in the country. He's formerly represented the JonBenet Ramsey's parents, the Kobe Bryant accuser, Richard Jewell, who was accused of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park bombing, and I think that was done with a bit of strategery(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: I think that, you know, actually Herman Cain was, you know, maybe sending a not-so-subtle message to any potential accusers out there or the ones who have already come out that says listen, if you're going to keep up with this you might see a defamation libel...

STEELE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. I mean if you're going to criticize one woman for having Gloria Allred at her side then let's not have opinions when Herman Cain...

IFTIKHAR: Right. And celebrity lawyer to celebrity lawyer.

MARTIN: ...has another lawyer at his side.

STEELE: Well, no, and that's, but that's exactly the case. But - and here is where I then go after that, if I make that move and I'm so adamant as I have been publicly on this, if I'm Herman Cain, then the first thing I do is I bring a lawsuit because you've already been libeled, you've already been defamed. So if these allegations as you've stated, are patently false, if they're lies, if they are political in nature, et cetera, et cetera, then sue, then bring the lawsuit now. Because that - I mean just hiring the lawyer, yeah, that may send some signal. But the real signal is sent if you are wholly right in your stance to take that next step and bring the suit.

IZRAEL: Jimi, you want to weigh on it?

Well, I don't know. This has been one of the best political races in my lifetime. You know, I like this kind of theater, so I want to see how it shakes out. But, I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, you know, but on the other hand a lot of people say well, what else isn't getting told? That's an interesting question of whether this is worthy or not worthy. I know that Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, said excuse me, where is the foreign policy conversation we were having.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: Where is that? Pablo, before we let you go, do you want to weigh in on this? How does determine Cain?

TORRE: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Since this is not your area. You know, this is...

TORRE: No. I want...

MARTIN: Your arena is different.

STEELE: This is sport. This is kind of a sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Kind of. Briefly.

TORRE: As the average American - I mean it's existential, right? Like why are these people the best that we can produce? Why are we watching Herman Cain and Rick Perry have to do with all of this? Isn't this, you know, are these the best and brightest in the country? And that's something that I think a lot of people are wondering about.

MARTIN: Pablo for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from our NPR studios in New York. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." Arsalan Iftikhar is a legal civil rights attorney, founder of themuslimguy.com, and author of "Islamic Pacificism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." And Michael Steele is a former chair of the Republican National Committee and a columnist for theRoot.com. That's an online publication. They, Jimi, Arsalan and Michael, here with me in our D.C. studio. Thank you all.

STEELE: Oh, a pleasure.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

TORRE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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