Stop Godding up those ballplayers.
– Stanley Woodward,
to Red Smith
And therein lies the central dispute about Paterno, award-winning columnist Joe Posnanski’s biography of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, tainted by association at the end of his life by an unimaginably horrific scandal.
Woodward, the legendary sports editor of the late New York Herald Tribune, was only indulging in a little crusty editor-ism when he sent this note to his equally legendary columnist. But it speaks to Posnanski’s effort as well, which has been panned in some quarters as the work of an apologist Godding up Saint JoePa and performing all manner of gymnastics to absolve him of his role in unwittingly abetting a child molester.
There is much to find fault with in Paterno. Stylistically, it reads more like a massively extended column than a biography. And while it’s clear Posnanski talked to dozens of Paterno’s former players, associates and family members, he at times relies too heavily on Paterno’s wife, Sue, and Paterno himself, lending the book a distinct air of homer-ism.
For all of that, though, there are no obvious gymnastics in the way Posnanski treats Paterno’s involvement in the Jerry Sandusky mess, which was exploding at virtually the moment Posnanski was wrapping up his opus.
Those sections read like deadline reporting, with Posnanski playing it straight down the middle. Here is what we know; here is what was in the grand jury presentments; here is what Paterno says he remembers; here is what others say they remember.
In the end, Posnanski concludes it is beyond the scope of this book to look beyond anyone’s role but Paterno’s in the Sandusky affair, and if that reads like a cop-out it’s nonetheless true.
And it’s largely mitigated by what Posnanski writes next.
It is certain, he goes on, 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. Nobody – not the president of the school, not the athletic director, not the legendary coach – reported the incident to police, and this would haunt a community, shatter the reputation of a great university, and darken the legacy of the coach who made it his life’s goal to strive for success with honor.
Beyond this, Posnanski makes no judgments. The problem, of course, is that everything else in Paterno raises questions that lend themselves to those judgments.
Under Posnanski’s pen, Paterno emerges as a driven, obsessed micro-manager with a caustic tongue and a rigid sense of right and wrong that veers perilously close to sanctimony. An often-repeated family story, for instance, chronicles the time he flew into a rage when one of his daughters ordered the all-you-can-eat salad at a restaurant, and another of his daughters took an uneaten cucumber off her plate.
Paterno accused her of stealing because it was all-you-can-eat, not all you and your sister can eat. And he insisted to the end of his days that he was right.
It’s a great story, and it lends a greater nuance to Paterno than has been portrayed. His players, Posnanski writes, by and large hated him, at least until they were gone. His relationships with at least one of his sons and his assistant coaches – particularly Sandusky, whom Paterno despised and felt threatened by because of his popularity in State College – were often strained by his my-way-or-the-highway management style.
And yet everything, in the end, circles back to the Great Scandal.
Would Sandusky have roamed free on the Penn State campus if Paterno had wielded the influence he denied he had, or been better at following things up (one of his great flaws, according to many)? And how does his conveniently hazy memory of the principal events square with the man who, even a quarter-century later, could remember what the parents of a former player served him for dessert during a recruiting visit?
Posnanski’s narrative raises those questions and more. He leaves it to us to answer them.