On Nov. 4, 2011, Joe Paterno was a nominee for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The main library at Penn State was named for him, and a statue of him stood in front of the football stadium. He was admired by American presidents — Republican and Democrat — and beloved by business leaders and clergy, football junkies and academics. There had been countless glowing stories written and told about him. 60 Minutes had done a piece on him so favorable that Paterno himself claimed to be embarrassed by it. Sports Illustrated had named him Sportsman of the Year. The Big Ten Conference named a trophy after him. Paterno had won more games than any big-time football coach ever and was on any short list of the greatest coaches ever. People called him Saint Joe, and only in recent years — as Paterno got older and crankier and less effective — had there even been much sarcasm in the title. That’s how it was on Nov. 4.
I should start this off by saying I have been a long-time fan of Joe Posnanski. He's been one of the better sportswriters in America for a number of years. He's as lyrical a writer as there as, and he was also one of the first mainstream writers to embrace advance stats in baseball. I'm friends with him on Facebook, though I've never met him face-to-face (and he has about 5,000 friends on Facebook).
Ever since the Penn State scandal exploded, I've felt bad for Posnanski in a way. He was in State College researching a biography on Paterno when, suddenly, Paterno's biography changed. Now, anything Posnanski wrote would be scrutinized like never before. Anything short of a confesson or admonition would leave him accused of being an apologist. I'm surprised that he didn't drop the project after the story broke. There would have been no shame, at least to me, in saying "This is no longer the same project that I began working on, and I feel like it's best served to put the project on hold."
I haven't read his book yet, but there's one scene making the rounds in the reviews that struck me:
“So, what do you think of all this?”
I told him that it was crazy, but that was not what he was asking.
“What do you think of all this?” he asked me again.
I had not intended to include this in the book. It was a personal moment between writer and subject, but as the story has played out, I decided it was important. I told him that I thought he should have done more when he was told about Jerry Sandusky showering with a boy. I had heard what he had said about not understanding the severity, not knowing much about child molestation, not having Sandusky as an employee. But, I said, “You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you.”
He nodded. He did not try to defend or deflect. He simply said, “I wish I had done more,” again .
Of course, that last line begs for the follow-up question we're all asking: "Why didn't you?" Those three words are the crux of this story. Why didn't Joe Paterno do more? He had his reasons, but what were they? I understand the reluctance to ask such a probing question giving the setting - the kitchen table of a man dying of lung cancer (I've asked myself if I'd have been able to ask the follow up, and I can't honestly say, with 100 percent certainty, that I would have) - but it's the question that, for now, remains unasked and unanswered.
I also want to focus on that part of the excerpt that I bolded. About Posnanski not wanting to put this scene in the book because it was a personal moment.
We're taught that often in journalism. Keep yourself out of the story. You are not the story. It's a norm in our business. And with good reason. But there are exceptions to almost every rule, and this was one of them.
I'm shy about telling another writer what they should have written, especially one as good as Posnanski. But I think there's a wonderful book in this struggle to reconcile the Joe Paterno beloved by Penn State fans and the one reviled by so many now. In the struggle between the Paterno of Nov. 4 and the Paterno of Nov. 5.
There's no shame in admitting that's a struggle. Does his inaction in the Sandusky case negate all the good he did over the years? How do you reconcile these two poles?
I'm interested to read Posnanski's book about Paterno. But I would be fascinated to read a book about Posnanski's struggles in writing about Paterno.
In this case, the writer can be the story. And I think it would be an illuminating one.