By Jason Keidel
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Joe Posnanski, a renowned writer for Sports Illustrated, doubled as a dubious mercenary over the last year while penning Joe Paterno’s biography.
No doubt hired as a shill to write a 300-page puff piece on the former Penn State football coach, Posnanski could not have seen his chore mutating so drastically and historically in just a few months. His task went from combing the wings of an angel to reinstating “JoePa” into the lexicon after all the mythology burned off the man who harbored a child rapist for about 15 years.
If you read around, From Deadspin to the more genteel, literary sites, the book, released this week, is a disturbing salute to a man who lost the bars on his lapels long before his death. No doubt the Sandusky scandal put Posnanski in a perilous position, having to morph from biographer to reporter while camped in Paterno’s kitchen.
In a stroke of serendipity, Mike Francesa got an hour with Posnanski on Tuesday. The biographer is granting a dearth of decent airtime, so Mike was our eyes and for the 60 minutes he had the writer in his studio. Say what you want about Francesa, he’s not afraid to grill anyone not named Bernie Williams.
And no one was closer to Paterno over the last year of his life than Posnanski. No, he’s not David Maraniss, the world’s biographer nonpareil, but he’s got the chops to at least break a few delicate membranes and memories of the worst scandal in this history of American sports.
A writer’s dream fell onto Posnanski’s lap. Instead of a soporific story about a cuddly, avuncular icon who rode off into the sunset with 409 wins and countless parables, statutes, statues and adoration from generations of football fans, he was led down a satanic journey that would make Dante Alighieri cringe.
Posnanski plunged into the vortex of the biggest scandal in American sports history, right under the dim lights of Paterno’s kitchen. And he whiffed. If you care to look at his book as strict reportage, an objective, obdurate desire to report Paterno’s view on life, liberty, and Sandusky, then he did his job. We can’t kill Posnanski for playing it safe. And yet we can.
Posnanski could have put a literary bow on the most daunting and haunting case we’ll ever see under the aegis of sports. Yet he went by the book, so to speak, refusing to involve himself and infuse his conscience into the story. The Paterno Apologist would love this tableau, because it doesn’t damn Paterno the way the Freeh report does. Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who spent $7 million, interviewed over 400 people, and wrote a 267-page treatise on the moral vacuum formerly known as Happy Valley, closed the coffin on JoePa. And until someone of Freeh’s gravitas proves otherwise, his report is the final word on the wretched affair.
I don’t pretend that Posnanski’s job was easy. Writing is often regarded as a glamorous job – until you see our paychecks. So if someone offers you six figures to airbrush Paterno’s wrinkled profile for his fawning congregation, you take it. And you play by the slanted rules, until they are grossly violated, as they were by Sandusky and his former boss.
Even Francesa, who declared from the jump that Joe Paterno had to know about Sandusky, particularly after the 1998 investigation, speaks about the disgraced coach in odd euphemisms, saying that Paterno is clearly “flawed” and made some “errors in judgment.”
Let’s be clear. Running a red light is an error in judgment. Blowing your rent money on a poker game is an error in judgment. Cheating on your girlfriend is an error in judgment. Looking the other way while your top lieutenant sodomized boys in your locker room – and then allegedly cloaking said crimes from the authorities – is an atrocity.
Joe Posnanski owns the most coveted plot in the halls of sports writing: the back page of Sports Illustrated. There are some sublime writers who’ve borrowed that acre of sacred space. There isn’t a sportswriter alive who wouldn’t want those 300 words every week, spun in our voice, vantage and vintage.
All we wanted was for one Joe P. to ply his trade upon another Joe P., who didn’t properly ply his. He did just enough. But sometimes doing enough just isn’t nearly enough.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com
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