JoePo, JoePa, and Saying What Isn't So

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Well before it suddenly looked like an appallingly bad idea, the idea of having Joe Posnanski write a book about Joe Paterno pegged to a Father's Day 2013 release date was probably a bad idea. This isn't to say that that book, which was supposed to be called The Grand Experiment: The Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno and is now simply called Paterno, couldn't have been a decent enough book; if Joe Posnanski was writing it, it had a good chance. It's just that, even ignoring everything we now know about what Paterno did, the nation's bookstores manifestly do not need another study in manly leadership or paean to heroic executive virtue. We are soaking in the curdled, loathe-y culture that sort of easy adoration has made, and it stinks. Giving the nation's aspiring prickly autocrats and household-scale CEOs something inspiring to read on airplanes, which is certainly what Paterno's Father's Day release date suggests was the idea, is a crummy endeavor, and not one that deserves a writer of Posnanski's talent or suits a writer of his intense and admirable empathy. Maybe the book wouldn't have been that, though. We don't know, and we won't, because of course Paternodidn't make it until Father's Day 2013.

Simon & Schuster, which paid Posnanski a reported $750,000 advance for the book, moved its publication date up dramatically, from next June to right MF'ing now, in the wake of the atrocity-avalanche that buried Penn State last fall. And so Paternois in stores as you read this, presumably selling some copies but mostly just weirding everyone out, what with that disgraced gnome we're all so soul-sick of hearing about squinting blindly out from its cover. Paterno is, if you believe our buddy Tim Marchman's review in the Wall Street Journal, a mostly not-good but even more strange book.

"The most interesting thing about Paterno may be that, even leaving the scandal aside, the coach comes across as a self-mythologizing monster, consumed by his legacy of winning on the football field," Tim writes. "I'm not sure that this is what Mr. Posnanski was going for, given the amount of space he spends on the inspiring life lessons that various players learned from the coach. If not, though, it's a tribute to his reportorial commitment that he lets the facts tell the story." Circumstances probably ensured that it would have to be this way, but Paterno sounds very much like a book at war with itself. Which could be very interesting, provided the reader and the writer understand the conflict.

There's more to Tim's review, which is short and eminently worth reading, and presumably more to the book than that; I haven't read it, and don't imagine I ever will barring someone hiring me to review it or some sort of "Time Enough At Last" emergency. But I don't have any trouble believing Tim when he writes that the book "is mostly the story of the coach as confidence man, and what you think of it will probably depend on how badly you think the author was conned." At Fox Sports, an unusually dialed-in Jason Whitlock makes his position unsurprisingly clear on this question, but with surprisingly few references to The Wire. Whitlock believes that Posnanski was conned—he puts the word journalist in scare quotes when describing Posnanski, because this is still a Jason Whitlock column—and that Posnanski was, moreover, a too-willing mark for that con job, in large part because he "want[s] to be as famous as Mitch Albom" but also because he was blinded by Paterno's power.

The latter is easy to believe; the former is a pretty sick burn, I guess, if also wildly and hilariously unfair. I've met Posnanski once, and did one long email interview with him for his previous book, and while I've admired his writing for years I certainly don't know him. But he inarguably writes and hustles as hard as anyone doing this job, and interacts with his readers with a graciousness and openness that is pretty much the inverse of Albom's prickly half-assery, or Whitlock's jet-engine self-caricature for that matter. The more popular caricature of Posnanski as a wide-eyed sentimentalist who extrudes ornate tributes without discernment or shame is also hugely unfair to his better writing, which is generous and understatedly skeptical and unique.

If Posnanski went to State College to write a book on the virtue of unaccountable institutions or the leadership pro-tips and tough-love lessons of a man who—even before the scandal that quite literally pulled down his statue—was pretty clearly in love first and foremost with himself, then shame on him, I suppose. But that book became impossible thanks to what happened on Paterno's watch; if Posnanski did not express that PATERNO WAS BAD loudly enough for some pundits, it certainly doesn't seem as if he decided to knock out a mash note, either. It's easy to criticize Posnanski for writing a book that revered Paterno, as Whitlock and others have done, but we should recognize that much of that revulsion probably owes to the (justifiable) creepiness of being confronted, knowing what we know now, with an accurate depiction of the reverence reflected back at Paterno for generations. This has always been the problem: the pop-sports discourse on coaches is mostly dedicated to turning unaccountable authoritarianism into something else, even something virtuous. There is a great book to be written about that and what it does, one that's respectful but not reverent, skeptical but not cynical. It's a book that Joe Posnanski might have written, had his publishers seen fit to extend the opportunity to do it.

Of course, they didn't. "There was plenty of time to prepare and craft a narrative that neither vilified nor sanctified Paterno," Whitlock proclaims. "There was time to explore Paterno’s humanity and the unique set of circumstances and conditions that grossly compromised Paterno’s integrity." All true enough, except that also clearly there wasn't that time, even for a writer as fast and prolific as Posnanski. It's a decent bet that any book Joe Posnanski—or any lesser sportswriter, which is to say any other sportswriter, more or less—wrote about Joe Paterno would've been confused and incomplete. But it's a surer bet if that book is being rushed through, because it is being rushed out.

Posnanski did not cover himself in glory with his pandering performance in the days after the story of Sandusky's horrors broke; he may well have come to believe in The Idea of Paterno, like many other smart people, including (I might as well acknowledge) my mother, who went to Penn State when Paterno was an assistant and Sandusky was a lineman. It was a great idea, to be fair; "grand experiment" is grandiose phrasing, but it's not inaccurate. It's a part of the story, all the same.

Give Posnanski those extra months, and he might have found his way further into that story, and might have navigated and narrated that rotten edifice's inner cavities in the way that we should hope for from a writer of this caliber. He didn't have that time; his publishers wanted the book out sooner, wanted it out now, for reasons I cannot quite understand. In so doing, they undercut Posnanski, and they undercut the important book he might have written. Of course, he still might not have written it. But if anyone is going to tell us that there was time enough to write a great book about the great and tragic human failure of Joe Paterno, it probably shouldn't be Jason Whitlock. It should've been Joe Posnanski.

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