Posnanski and Paterno

So, over the past few days, I’ve been asked repeatedly what I’d do were I Joe Posnanski, working on a detailed biography on the life and times of Joe Paterno. Truthfully, I initially decided to pass on the subject, because A. It’s an insanely rough situation; and B. As a fellow biographer, I feel for Joe’s situation here.

That said, I’ve never been one to keep silent on stuff so, well, here I go …

I scrap it.

I do. I scrap the whole thing. I put it aside, maybe wait a year or two, then—when the dust clears and the implications are more understood—I return and write a real biography. Joe is a wonderful writer and, by all accounts, a good guy. I love his blog, and his pieces on infomercials are some of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I can’t say this enough times—Joe is terrific. A genuine wordsmith.

But there is no possible way, one month removed from a report that details Joe Paterno’s knowledge of a pedophile roaming the Penn State campus (and his refusal to do anything about it, when he clearly could/should have), a proper biography can be released. No. Possible. Way.

Can’t happen.

There are things that can be shoehorned into a book, and things that can’t. When I was working on The Rocket that Fell to Earth several years ago, Roger Clemens was in the midst of facing various PED-related charges. I kept the manuscript live as long as I possibly could, and included information until the very last moment. It was hard, and a tad awkward, but necessary. And doable.

By all accounts, Joe Posnanski’s biography was—until relatively recently—a love letter to Joe Paterno; an ode to a legendary coach and the men he inspired. Well, that no longer works. Like, not partially doesn’t work—doesn’t work at all. When a man allows the molestation of multiple children to take place on his watch; when the molestation of multiple children is brushed under the carpet in the name of protecting a football program (a football program!?) … well, call me crazy, but I no longer care about D.J. Dozier’s warm reflections of the time cuddly ol’ JoePa had him run off tackle against Ohio State. Not only do those sort of details turn insignificant—they turn insulting.

I have a pretty good idea how the publishing world works. I’ve been around. What print houses do (and what they do well) is “repackage” and “re-market.” Which is to say, instead of promoting a book as “the heartwarming story of Joe Paterno’s rise …”, it becomes “an explanation of Joe Paterno’s life, and ultimate demise.” Does the content of the book change? Somewhat, but only as little as humanly possible. It’s the strategy, not the actuality.


One of the things that really irks me, RE: Posnanski and Paterno, is that, late last year, after the initial Sandusky news hit, the author addressed a class at Penn State titled, “Joe Paterno: Communications and the Media.” As an employee of Sports Illustrated at the time, defending Paterno before a room of students was, to be polite, unprofessional (When I was coming up at SI, the editors would have considered firing a writer for such an action). According to a kid who Tweeted during the session, Posnanski uttered the following:

  • “If this happened at the University of Miami, no matter how bad it was, it wouldn’t have elevated to this level.”
  • “I think [Paterno] is a scapegoat. I definitely think that…I think he tried to do the right thing, and the right thing didn’t happen.”
  • “The only thing people remember about Woody Hayes is that he hit a player. I don’t want that to happen to Joe. He didn’t hit a player.”
  • “It’s already shameful. It’ll be ten times more shameful to think that they fired him with a personal messenger sent to his home.”
  • (On reporters who have covered the story well) “There are not many.”
  • “I’ve never seen anything handled worse. Maybe how New Orleans, post-Katrina….Paterno was always dangled by this university.”
  • “A lot of people came here to bury Joe. As a writer, I’m mad with that, as someone who’s come to know the Paternos, I’m heartbroken.”
  • “The rush to judgment here has been extraordinarily. The lesson to learn might be that we screwed this thing up.”

Those words might come to haunt Posnanski. And, perhaps, they should. Journalists are allowed to like their subjects, and even become sympathetic (and empathetic) toward them. There is a line, however, that can’t be crossed; the line when you go from enjoying someone to irrationally and inappropriately defending someone. Clearly, at the time Joe Posnanski didn’t know enough, and didn’t have his facts correct. He blasted his peers in the media, without realizing that, just maybe, they were right and he was wrong; that perhaps the coach he had come to admire and (it seems) love wasn’t worthy of the affection.

23 thoughts on “Posnanski and Paterno”

  1. No doubt this is gonna be one of the trickiest publishing moves coming up… Interest and sales (!) will be at its highest perhaps now so there’ll be a push to get it in print, but it’s probably not the best time for a 3D bio, for the reasons you say… Gonna be fascinating to watch how it plays out.

  2. While this is just an op/ed piece, perhaps Poz takes some of the profit from the book and channels it into a charitable fund for the victims and families? God knows there are millions of Paterno supporters that will buy this book upon it hitting the shelves.

  3. Posnaski’s comments in November obviously look awful in retrospect, but not as bad as if you understand the time and place. This was within days of the new breaking. JoePa had plenty of support from people.

    If anything Posnaski was playing the good journalist, telling students they shouldn’t rush to judgement and should instead let the facts of the story reveal themselves.

    Also, can not gleam over the fact that a student tweeted this during a class? That kind of journalism is as awful as any kind of sycophantic writing that Posnaski is being accused of.

  4. Sorry, I stopped reading when a lie about Ohio State was mentioned. OSU and Penn State didn’t play one another during the 80’s when Dozier played.

  5. Posnaski’s comments in November obviously look awful in retrospect…they also looked awful in November.

    Indefensible then and now

  6. I have enjoyed Joe’s past work immensely. Specifically, I have always valued the way he has managed to balance the new data-driven and objective approach to baseball analysis with a more traditional narrative approach, while staying above the name calling and negativity that sometimes characterize that debate. In other words, I have always liked the way he stayed above the fray. He ended up up doing exactly the opposite here. I was so sad to see his comments last fall to the Paterno class. A call to withhold judgment until all the facts came out would have been reasonable, but he sounded like a Paterno-partisan, someone who got so close to his subject that he lost the ability to be objective. If Paterno’s family and former players take Joe’s part, I find that understandable. They are allowed to be too close to the situation and have no need to be objective. Joe is a journalist and the man’s biographer. It’s his job to be objective. So I find myself wandering over to Posnanski’s site pretty regularly these days, because how he deals (and his publishers) deal with this issue fascinates me. He was wrong last fall. He should not have inserted himself into the debate and criticized the rest of the media. Whether he admits that or not — whether he has managed in the wake of the Freeh report to gain the perspective he lacked last fall — definetely will shape my ability to take him seriously going forward.

  7. When are any writers going to analyze the fresh report and mention how it’s full of assumptions and conclusions that aren’t supported by facts? I’m not defending anyone but taking the information in the report as truth is unfair since the biggest accusations are all assumptions based on freehs thoughts . This from a former FBI director who covered up the Waco fiasco.

  8. Even though you’re trying to take Posnaski to task you’re too soft. He’s a fraud and part of the problem with the psu issue. Media is culpable for creating the myth of paterno. Wish you would have written this after he lectured the class not when its easy and simple to say so.

  9. It is possible that Posnanski’s book will be the love letter that has been disproven. It’s possible he’ll harm his journalistic reputation in the process.

    But maybe we could wait until the thing is published and we what he wrote before we bash it and him? The scorn he’s received for a book none of us has read is astounding.

  10. Posnanski’s Soul of Baseball is probably the best sports book I’ve ever read. Sorry Jeff. Hell, one of the best books I’ve ever read. I really really like Joe Posnanski and grew up rooting for PSU. I will never read this book. I agree, he should have scraped it.

  11. First off I’m a huge Posnanski fan. But if he does not do the right thing and take JoePa to task with this book I’ll delete everything. Facebook, Twitter, Joe Blogs bookmark etc. All of it. Yes, I realize Paterno helped build a library and looked after his players. Big effing deal these are mutually beneficial relationships. It’s what you do for the powerless when no one is watching that counts. I saw a Shriner’s sticker on the back of a truck today that said “A man is never as tall as when he stoops to help a child.” Joe Paterno was a very small man.

    So far Posnanski is off to a rough start but I have faith he will do exactly as you say and step away for a year or two.

  12. If Jeff Pearlman were Joe Posnanski…

    he’d be a vastly better writer, better person, & he wouldn’t condemn folks for steroid use without any proof.

    Thanks as always for the unsolicited $0.02, Jeffo.

  13. I used to enjoy JoePo’s writing, too. But the way he’s handled this whole thing runs counter to any concept of journalistic integrity. You actually are incapable of writing an interesting or good book about *anyone* when you worship them. That’s not biography but myth-making and it belongs in the fiction section. JoePo sold out. He sold out to support a pedophile enabler. And with what he’s said since November he’s became a pedophile enabler himself. I’m stunned that someone who has two kids himself can’t see through his own idolatry enough to recognize that he’s defending someone who calculatedly enabled a child rapist. Frightening.

  14. Jeff love your blog and bought the Payton book…but I’d like to hear your thoughts on why your complaint about Posnanski’s book is any different than people’s ripping the Payton book without reading it…I mean that sincerely and not obnoxiously. If we like his work, shouldn’t we give him the benefit of the doubt by waiting til it comes out at least before saying something?

    1. Here is my take on this: Posnanski blasted the media and the public for rushing to judgment on the PSU scandal and on Paterno. True, he himself rushed headlong to judgment, when he called Paterno a “scapegoat” over “a single hazy incident” but the fact that he couldn’t follow his own advice doesn’t make it any less compelling–wait for the facts to come out, he argued. So why accelerate the book’s publication by almost a full year? He knew that lots of facts would come out in the Sandusky trial, but he decided to rush to print without those facts. And, even more damning, he knew that the Freeh investigation would come out, with its 3 and a half million emails and more than 400 witnesses interviewed. But the book is being rushed out, avoiding dealing with those facts, too.

      I don’t need to read the book to know that the calculated decision was made to rush it into print so that the growing mountain of facts damning PSU’s administration and Paterno’s central role in it could be safely ignored. Whether that was Poz’s idea or Simon and Schuster or both, it makes his shrill insistence that we need to wait for the facts seem at best hypocritical and at worst, outrageous.

      The thing is, there might well be a Paterno story that needs telling–one about how the money and power and fame of bigtime college football have a corrosive and corrupting influence even on those who initially came into the system with integrity. But maybe a story about the corrupting influence of money and fame isn’t one Posnanski finds terribly palatable these days…

  15. Now that Paterno is dead, Posnanski isn’t allowed to write anything bad about him. That is how biographies work. We don’t want the true story, we want a hand job.

  16. A lot of us have liked Posnanski’s writing and worry that the publication of his Paterno book will destroy his reputation. And so, a lot of us hope that somehow the book will not be published.

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