Rich Hofmann: Conlin case: A distant storm

Posted: December 29, 2011

IT HAS BEEN more than a week now since the first Inquirer report, and I no longer feel like throwing up. But the allegations of child sexual abuse against Bill Conlin remain horrible and vivid, and the emotions still cascade at times. There is no peace.

There are seven allegations now against Conlin, 77, the Daily News sports columnist who retired hours before publication of the first story. All of the allegations date back to the 1970s or earlier. There has been no outraged denial from Conlin or his attorney. Instead, there were Conlin emails, published on Deadspin, that combined equal parts bluster and sadness - a combination that, in my mind, has always defined the man.

The alleged victims deserve everyone's complete attention. To think about the shock and disbelief they must have felt as children, and the lingering emotional issues they faced as adults, and the anger they must feel that there is no legal remedy today, is heartbreaking. If the allegations are true - and the weight of the seven of them is substantial - you can only hope the accusers have been able to find some measure of solace over the years and decades.

They are the important people here. But to work in the Daily News sports department is to experience this uniquely, and maybe not as an outsider might expect. Because before all of this happened, Conlin really was an island, alone both in his enormous talent and in reality. And while it is true most sports writers are notoriously office-phobic, it remains a fact that most of the Daily News staff members have never once seen Conlin in person.

A co-worker asked me the other day whether I had called Conlin, and I replied I had not. I thought about it for a second and could not remember ever having spoken to Conlin on the telephone - and the number of emails we have traded over the years probably can be counted on one hand. I asked my co-worker, who has been at the Daily News for about 25 years. He, too, could not remember ever speaking to Conlin on the phone.

Which doesn't mean we didn't talk when we saw each other, because we did - once a year, twice a year, for a couple of minutes. I met him when I was 22, and our relationship stayed the same over 3 decades: He told the jokes, and I laughed at them. It was just easier that way. Assigned to cover the ceremony honoring him last summer at the Baseball Hall of Fame, I enjoyed listening to him tell some of the old stories, surrounded by family members and a few old friends.

But there was no great closeness, and there wasn't between Conlin and just about everyone at the Daily News. He was that isolated. He burned bridges with some and ignored most of the rest, and that's just the way it was.

All of which has nothing to do with the terrible allegations, or the pain suffered by the people who say they were victimized. It explains nothing, because there is no explanation. It is just where your mind wanders.

The other day, a stranger shouted from two cars over in a convenience-store parking lot: "Did any of you guys know?" He asked it innocently enough, not maliciously, but the man had no idea how insulting the question was. That is where we are, though. You spend Christmas telling family and friends you were as shocked as everyone else, and then you shrug a lot.

Two or three people emailed, wondering when I was going to write a column about Conlin to compare with the ones I wrote about the Jerry Sandusky situation at Penn State. I did not answer them, even though I do have an answer. The Penn State issue was not centered on the allegations of evil, but the way the athletic program dealt with the allegations. Conlin's case is different, because there is no suggestion of a coverup and because his connection to sports is just the accident of his employment. That is the answer, but it would not satisfy a lot of people.

This will never be about intellectual arguments from a journalism class. Instead, it will always be about seven people who say they were sexually abused as children by a man who became the most prominent sports writer in Philadelphia. If true, it is monstrous. But what do you say after that?

I feel terrible for the alleged victims, but I also feel terrible for Conlin's family. And if I'm being honest, I also feel bad for the news reporters and executives at this newspaper being put through a hellish journalistic test by a colleague many of them have never met. Conlin's line in an email to Deadspin - "I am a lot bigger to the Daily News than Sandusky ever was to Penn State" - will be remembered for as long as there is a Daily News, as will this terrible episode.

And you know what I feel worst about? That my overriding reaction isn't outrage, at least not 100 percent of the time. Because outrage is easier than the other times, when there is just this crushing sadness.


Send email to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich. For recent columns go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.

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