Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Of Joe Posnanski and Joe Paterno

I wouldn’t want to be facing Joe Posnanski’s literary dilemma right now.

Joe is a great writer and, by all accounts, a great guy. But as the Penn State situatuion gets messier and messier and messier (just a few moments ago, Mike McQueary testified that he saw Jerry Sandusky having sex with a child, then told Joe Paterno about it), a biography of Joe Paterno gets, well, murkier and murkier and murkier. As a friend said to me, it’s as if you’re writing a book on O.J. Simpson. The magic at USC. Those runs for the Bills. His work as a sideline reporter, as a Monday Night Football host, as a Hertz pitchman. You report on all his charitable endeavors; the way he helped kids and signed a million autographs and smiled the brightest smile …

Then—Bam. Nicole and Ronald.

You can no longer write the same book. You can’t even write the same book up until a certain point, then—when the murders took place—change tone. Why? Because O.J. Simpson’s evil actions speak to the depth and mindset of a human being, and a biographer’s job—his obligation—is to delve into and grasp and explain that mindset. It doesn’t happen at the moment of the tragedy; it happens way before. Maybe his boyhood. Maybe his heyday. The author must figure this out.

Joe Paterno didn’t sexually molest anyone. But the loveable “Joe Pa” that we all knew and embraced wasn’t entirely real—if real at all. He was, it seems, a man who allowed v-e-r-y bad things to happen under his watch; who brought to Penn State University a man who, allegedly, took advantage of young boys; who lorded over a program desperately in need of oversight. Somehow Joe Paterno—king of Penn State—blindly (actually, not blindly) had these terrible, horrible, disgusting, nightmarish things take place on his watch. It is unforgivable and, sadly—no matter how many football players swear by the man—legacy-changing. Life changing, really.

Hence, if you’re Joe Posnanski, you’re in a tough pickle. You can: A. write the book you initially set out to write (one discussing Paterno’s legacy and decency and the life lessons he imparted on legions of Nittany Lions) and risk destroying your own legacy as a reporter; B. Blow up everything you’ve done and make it a book primarily about the scandal, and a football coach who, somehow, lost his footing; C. Try and do both—a seemingly impossible task. Once we find out O.J. killed his wife, his wacky barbs with Howard Cosell don’t really resonate. Once we find out the Joe Paterno presided over such evil, encouraging words to John Sacca don’t really fly.

Again, I don’t envy Joe. What would I do? Honestly, I’d call my publisher, ask for, oh, six extra months and hammer this story. I’d change the entire focus of the book and own the Penn State scandal. I’d report and report and report, and, if need be, apologize to Paterno for the different course. “Look, I know you thought one thing,” I’d tell him. “But you have to understand—it’s a different world now.”