Jeff Pearlman

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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.”


  • DG

    In the words of Marlo Stanfield, “You want it to be one way. But guess what. It’s the other way.”

  • J.Brandt

    D.) Pack it in. Live to fight another day. Save the pain and aggravation. Go back to your family.

    I understand the desire for a writer to make his eternal mark, to tackle the ‘Big Story,’ to write something that might end up on those inevitable Top 100 lists in 2099.

    But at what price to your family’s health and sanity? As a long-time admirer of Poz, a PSU book could easily become his white whale.

  • Mike

    Jeff in 6 months the story may be old news. You strike while the iron is hot. As you know, a biography is supposed to tell the good and bad about a person. Yes he made a lot of charitable donations and put the Penn State football team on the map. He also allegedly allowed bad things to happen on his watch. Both would have to be noted in the book.

  • Barry

    Couldn’t agree more with J. Brandt. Unless you desperately need the advance give back the money and find another topic. Joe is a great writer and I’m sure his publisher would understand that no one could have seen this coming.

  • Jim

    Why would he not write the book? He’s a writer. Writers write.

    Paterno was an extremely complex and fascinating figure even before the scandal. He was an ideal subject for a biography. And this scandal only adds to that complexity and makes his story even more compelling.

    Unlike OJ, this doesn’t completely change the script. Paterno was never a saint. He did a lot of great and generous things, but he’s always been a tough, cut-throat, ego-driven man. This scandal seems out of character for him and in a way it is — but in a way it isn’t.

  • cc

    to be credible he especially has to get on the record what happened when sandusky finally was forced to retire. there was a deal there for no prosecution, and jo pa rammed it through. also he needs to go back and show when these things actually should have become known.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life