Penn State Football: Posnanski's "Paterno" Book Is Getting Shelled by Critics

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Penn State Football: Posnanski's
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Joe Posnanski's "Paterno," is now out. It's the most highly anticipated college football book since "The Testaverde Code," where Jim Kelly goes from Miami to Rome to catch an art thief or something. And considering the subject matter and the unexpected avalanche of consequence when the scandal first hit, all eyes were going to be on how Posnanski handled the firing of Paterno and the subsequent weeks and months until Paterno passed away.

But for as tantalizing as the available excerpts were, the book itself has been something of a mild disappointment to critics.

And by "mild disappointment," we mean "perhaps the worst thing they've ever seen."

First, at Slate.com, reviewer (and University of Colorado law professor) Paul Campos can't even get one paragraph in before dropping bombs on Posnanski and the book:

George Orwell’s review of Salvador Dail’s autobiography includes the observation that, “if it were possible for a book to give off a physical stink from its pages, this one would.” I was reminded of that judgment while reading Joe Posnanski’s new biography of Joe Paterno. “Paterno” is a disgraceful book and a minor literary crime.

Posnanski, a sportswriter who has authored many justly admired pieces, particularly about baseball, was handed what turned into a once in a lifetime opportunity last year, when he was invited by Joe Paterno to spend the fall in State College, Penn., so that the author could have daily access to the subject of his biography. (Posnanski gives no sign of understanding that Paterno did him this service so that the subject would also have daily access to the biographer.)

This became an extraordinary journalistic and literary opportunity in the first week of November, when the Jerry Sandusky scandal became public knowledge. To say that Posnanski botches that opportunity is akin to saying that the Titanic’s maiden voyage might have gone more smoothly.

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Things don't get a whole lot more charitable to Posnanski from there. Campos crushes Posnanski for relying heavily on Paterno's personal notes as matters of record, especially after Posnanski mentions that son Scott Paterno had pored through the notes as the scandal hit, looking for any mention of Sandusky's transgressions and/or Paterno's knowledge and involvement.

In other words, the "chain of custody" on those notes is, to say the least, problematic.

The Atlantic's Allen Barra, meanwhile, takes issue with one of Posnanski's opening statements: that the book "is not a defense of Joe Paterno," as Posnanski states in the book's introduction. "Yes it is, and relentlessly so," retorts Barra in his review.

But after Barra gets done poking holes in some characterizations of Patenro's football teams, he gets into the Sandusky problem, and for this Barra reserves his heaviest criticism:

It's not enough to say that Posnanski does not do well relating the facts of the Sandusky case and Paterno's role in it. The truth is that he doesn't really try. "Joe Paterno was fired," he tells us at the end, "why and how the board [Penn State trustees] made its decision is not my story to tell." If not Paterno's biographer's, one wonders, then whose story is it? And what is so complicated about that story? The answer to "how" the board made its decision is quickly and nearly unanimously. The answer to "why" is that Paterno, as revealed in his own testimony to a grand jury and through numerous emails that have been revealed since investigations began, had full reason to suspect Sandusky's monstrous crimes against children and did nothing to stop him.

This is the crux of the matter. Time and again, Posnanski writes as if it was his intention to make clear issues cloudy. One example: In the months after Paterno died, "some evidence surfaced that he made been told something about the 1998 incident"—the first time rumors of Sandusky depravities surfaced—"though what he was told remained unclear." But surely Paterno was told enough to make him understand that the allegations should be investigated by proper authorities.

And on that note, Barra is correct. Posnanski's role as a biographer of a man who he shadowed for months should never be to end up saying such critical details are "unclear" and leaving it at that. This is important stuff! It's the entire reason most people are going to buy the book. And to just punt (football reference) on things like Paterno's firing or his knowledge and involvement in Sandusky's protection by university officials does readers a cruel disservice.

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In an interview with GQ.com, Posnanski says his presentment of the Paterno story—and specifically his role in the Penn State scandal—is one he tried to do as even-handedly as possible. 

One thing I want to make clear is I do not want to tell anyone what they should believe about Paterno. I did the best reporting I know how to do, and I hope I uncovered quite a lot, but there are many gaps, and there's an ongoing criminal investigation that should give us more insight and answers. People will believe what they believe.

Unfortunately, that sense of objectivity is far more often an author's fantasy than a reality. Everything about a biography is telling people what they should believe about its subject. Posnanski doesn't have to antagonize Paterno or anything in his book, but considering the fact that Paterno was, at times, the central figure in such a massive, landscape-altering scandal, it at the very least behooves Posnanski to not take certain statements by him at face value. Not when evidence suggests otherwise.

It's a shame that Posnanski's book falls so short of what people wanted out of it. Posnanski says he's happy with the book and that he tried to paint as complete a picture of Paterno as possible, and that's fine. But when an author of his massive caliber gets access to a subject like this and comes away saying "what he was told remained unclear" and leaving it at that, well, it's more than a little disappointing.

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