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.
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.