Smack dab in the midst of researching his new biography of Joe Paterno (Paterno, Simon & Schuster), Joe Posnanski ran into a problem familiar to all newspaper columnists: Breaking news dropped a bomb on his original plan.
When Posnanski was a sports columnist for the Cincinnati Post and Kansas City Star, this happened with some regularity. I know because I was a fellow newspaperman at the time, which is how we became friends.
You’re writing off an event that will conclude with very little time before your deadline — a night game, usually — so you need a column plan going in. You talk to people before the game about a theme you hope will hold up and you write your column as the game proceeds. Then something dramatic happens that clearly takes precedence and you have to scrap your original plan and write a new column in whatever time remains.
This is basically what happened to Posnanski while in residence at Penn State University last year researching his authorized biography of Paterno, who had won more games than any coach in college football history. It was to be Paterno’s final season, although he had not yet announced that publicly. The biography would follow as a towering tribute, just in time for Father’s Day, 2013.
Posnanski was pretty close to completing his research when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke late last year. The vile details of Paterno’s former defensive coordinator’s crimes of pedophilia, many of them committed in Penn State facilities or on Penn State football trips, sent shock waves through the culture of college athletics and into the greater culture at large.
Had Posnanski been writing a newspaper column, his course would have been obvious: Scrap the bio, saving the research for a calmer time, and launch a new narrative on the scandal told from his unique position on the inside of an insular, geographically isolated Penn State culture.
But Posnanski wasn’t writing a newspaper column. He was writing a book, which introduced some complicating factors. He had received permission and access for the biography from the Paterno family; would he be breaking a trust to change direction, even if he came back with the bio later? He had a contract for the bio with his publisher; would it have approved the switch? (One imagines that Simon & Schuster would have been OK with two books for the price of one, particularly if the first hit an unexpectedly hot-button topic, but one doesn’t know for sure.)
In any case, this is not what Posnanski did. He tried instead to stick to his original plan and weave the breaking news into the otherwise laudatory biography. The result is a disjointed, unsatisfying book in which the aspects of traditional biography seem oddly trivial and discussion of the scandal seems superficial and defensive.
As many reviewers have pointed out, this is not the book Posnanski wanted to write. It’s clear he’s very fond of Paterno. The old coach even has a pet name for him: “Giuseppe.” Frankly, this level of apparently mutual affection is not that good for the traditional biography either, which comes off as fawning for much of the book.
But the big problem is it prevents Posnanski from getting at the most important questions raised by the Sandusky scandal. Instead, he allows the Paternos to frame the issue by building a straw man and then demolishing it. Early on, Posnanski describes this scene last fall after the 85-year-old Paterno finishes reading the grand jury presentment that details Sandusky’s sexual crimes against children:
At the dining-room table, Paterno finished reading the report. He asked a few uncomfortable questions that nobody particularly wanted to answer. Then he asked, “So what are they saying about me out there?” He pointed outside, past the living room, through the window, toward the mass of reporters and their notepads and cameras. His children told him that they — not just the media, but many people all across America — were saying that Joe Paterno had covered up for a child predator. They were saying that Paterno knew exactly what Jerry Sandusky had done and what he was about, that Paterno had protected Sandusky instead of those children. They were saying that after more than a half-century of coaching football at Penn State University, Joe Paterno was willing to let children be harmed in unimaginable ways to protect his legacy.
“How could they think that? he asked, and no one had the heart to answer. “They really think that if I knew someone was hurting kids, I wouldn’t stop it?”
They looked at him.
“Don’t they know me? Don’t they know what my life has been about?”
This was undoubtedly a heart-rending moment for a Paterno fan like Posnanski, but to allow the family’s characterization of what “they” were saying to stand is to tilt the playing field so far in Paterno’s direction that he cannot help but look like a victim himself.
I know of no one who has read the relevant evidence — the grand jury presentment, the Louie Freeh investigative report commissioned by Penn State trustees after the fact — who believes Paterno knew and purposefully ignored the details of Sandusky’s multi-decade rampage of child rape. But that is not the question, is it?
The question begins at a place where none of the people in authority at Penn State are willing to begin: This happened. It happened right under their noses, in their facilities, on their trips. In broad strokes, there are only a few ways to explain this:
— Sandusky was a brilliant criminal and con man who fooled everyone; therefore no one except Sandusky is to blame. Unfortunately, the corollary to this explanation is that it could happen again anytime. There’s really nothing to be done.
— Paterno and other Penn State administrators knew all about it and covered it up to protect themselves, a heinous and extreme charge that the Paterno family and former Penn State president Graham Spanier have both found useful as a straw man.
— Paterno and the Penn State administration avoided confronting and swept under the rug incidents that should have raised red flags out of ignorance, myopia, self-interest or some combination of the three.
This last, of course, is the actual sum of the allegations in the damning investigative report issued by the former FBI director. One cannot read the Freeh Report without recalling the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church and trying to learn something about the behavior of large, wealthy institutions in such situations. Ultimately, of course, the conduct of the church did rise to the level of overt and purposeful coverups in many cases. There is no evidence of that at Penn State. But there are important contradictions between evidence presented to the grand jury and the Freeh investigation on the one hand and Posnanski’s adoption of the Paterno family narrative on the other.
For example, Paterno tells Posnanski he has no recollection of a 1998 police investigation into a parent’s complaint that Sandusky had showered with her 11-year-old son. In a tape-recorded conversation between Sandusky and the mother, he admits he was wrong and says, “I wish I was dead.” Emails relating to this probe uncovered by the Freeh investigation include one from athletic director Tim Curley under the subject line, “Joe Paterno.”
“I have touched base with the coach,” Curley wrote. “Keep us posted. Thanks.”
So, unless Curley was lying in that email, Paterno was informed of the 1998 investigation he later said he knew nothing about. But let us accept the interpretation most favorable to Paterno — that he forgot about it; in fact, that he forgot so quickly that three years later, when graduate assistant Mike McQueary came to him to report seeing Sandusky and another pre-pubescent boy in a Penn State shower late one night, that Paterno, otherwise considered a brilliant man, made no connection to the earlier incident.
OK, so what about the 2001 McQueary report? McQueary has now testified before the grand jury and at Sandusky’s trial that he heard slapping sounds, skin on skin, that indicated sex. He described seeing the boy with his hands up against a wall and Sandusky behind him. It is not clear he was that specific with Paterno when he reported it; in fact, he says that “out of respect” for the aging coach he tried not to be too graphic. But it is clear that Paterno got the general idea. He told the grand jury that McQueary was visibly upset and told him something of a sexual nature was going on.
Paterno reported it to Curley, the athletic director who claimed to have touched base with him on the 1998 incident as well. Paterno tells Posnanski he didn’t know exactly what to do with McQueary’s report so he consulted Penn State’s guidelines and they told him to report it to his superior. Let’s leave aside the widely-debated question of whether anyone was actually Paterno’s superior at Penn State in those days.
Somehow, the report gets so watered down on its way up the administrative ladder that by the time it reaches Spanier, the university president, it has become “horseplay,” conjuring in his mind Sandusky and a youth snapping towels, as he told the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin.
There are at least two key questions that arise here. Posnanski was in a unique position to pursue them, and he did not.
1. How did this dilution of an awful, first-hand report take place?
2. How did Paterno manage to shrug off and never pursue again an allegation that he understood to involve some sort of sexual activity in a Penn State facility between a former coach with professor emeritus status and a pre-pubescent youth?
Posnanski’s answer, basically, is that Paterno was an old-school prude who knew nothing of such things and didn’t want to know, a man who has to ask his children what sodomy is.
Anything is possible, of course, but Posnanski has just spent nearly 300 pages telling us what a brilliant fellow Paterno is, and not just as a football coach. He is worldly. He is well-read. He is a graduate of an Ivy League school, Brown University. He is an inspiring commencement speaker. He has considered at various times going into politics. And now, for these purposes, he is a doddering old man who has never heard of homosexual rape, as if that were a technological innovation of the 21st century.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that it’s true. Seen in the light most favorable to Paterno, he is an increasingly demented old man whose ignorance and/or personal qualms helped keep the lid on a pedophilia rampage right under his nose. Is this really a lot better than the suggestion he couldn’t be bothered to follow up?
At the very end, just before he is fired, Paterno protests that he has no time to read the grand jury presentment because he has to get ready for the Nebraska game. Posnanski attributes this to the laser-like focus that has made him such a successful coach. Seen without Posnanski’s friendly filter, it is the single clearest, most scathing indictment of Paterno: He is, in the end, just as myopic as any other football coach. Even with the horrors of the scandal fully apparent, he would rather focus on football.
The problem with combining the biography and the scandal in a single book is that Paterno’s various successes on the football field — and there were many — simply don’t seem very important next to the depravity of what was going on in the Penn State showers and Penn State hotel rooms on the road. Sports biographies require a certain perceptual firewall; sports accomplishments can seem quite meaningful when the only context is lesser sports accomplishments. But in a book that concludes with the Sandusky scandal, how Paterno tinkered with traditional defensive alignments just doesn’t seem very important.
The overarching impression one comes away with, from both Posnanski’s book and Spanier’s lengthy interview with Toobin, is how deeply self-absorbed these folks were. Doesn’t everybody understand what good people they are? Doesn’t everybody know about all their good works? Spanier’s level of self-delusion is so intense he rewrites a conflict with Paterno over his job status in the early aughts that’s a matter of historical record.
They all emphasize that Sandusky was no longer a Penn State employee by 2001. None of them mentions or explains that he had emeritus status, an office and full access to school facilities. None acknowledges that his continuing proximity and access to Penn State football — access granted and maintained by Penn State officials — was the currency he used to lure his victims.
And not once does either of them look up and say:
Something awful happened here. It was on my watch. It is my responsibility as a leader to figure out how this could possibly have happened, what I did wrong, and to make sure it could never happen again.
This is what Freeh means by a shocking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims. It is not that Penn State officials knew he was molesting children and looked the other way. That would be a simple tale of good and evil, black and white. It is that amid a series of red flags, Penn State officials were too busy or too distracted or too self-interested to look any deeper. Even now, after the fact, they seem much more concerned with their own reputations than with the fate of the kids Sandusky molested using Penn State as his bait.
Posnanski does acknowledge this, although the acknowledgement is located in a section late in his book where he argues that the evidence Freeh uncovered is too ambiguous to tell us much.
It is beyond the scope of this book to look at the roles of anyone but Paterno in this harrowing affair, but it is certain that no one, Paterno included, was aware enough, courageous enough, or decent enough to stop a man who would be found guilty of forty-five counts of child molestation. Jerry Sandusky committed heinous crimes against children, and — as Paterno himself said — many people in and around State College would have deep regrets. Nobody — not the president of the school, not the athletic director, not the legendary coach — reported the  incident to the police, and this would haunt a community, shatter the reputation of a great American university, and darken the legacy of the coach who made it his life’s goal to strive for success with honor.
Paterno’s tale, it turns out, is not so unusual after all. A young man full of idealism and integrity grows into an old man protective of his kingdom and dismissive of all criticism. He comes to see his critics, Posnanski tells us with apparent approval, as cowards.
Bill Lyon, the retired Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who covered Paterno for many years, is far more clear-eyed. When I asked Lyon for the lesson of Paterno’s disgrace, he replied with Lord Acton’s famous warning:
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he said.
Lord Acton’s full quotation is even more relevant: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Paterno is neither the hero nor the victim Posnanski would paint. My old friend has let his fondness, and his revulsion at the world’s rush to judgment, cloud his own usually clear eyes.
Paterno, who died in January of lung cancer, is a classic case of corruption over time, of ego, self-importance and self-interest slowly growing like a cancer that crowds out so many of the values that provided his original motivation. He is not, in the end, an exception to much of anything. He is the arc of human nature itself.