No Touchdown for Paterno Biography

When news broke in November 2011 that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was about to be indicted for 52 counts of sexually assaulting children, Joe Posnanski—perhaps the most celebrated sportswriter in America—happened to be at State College in Pennsylvania working on a biography of Sandusky's former boss, legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Although the initial signs were not encouraging, there was still reason to hope that Posnanski would use his access and considerable gifts to write a definitive account of the scandal that led to Paterno being fired in disgrace. Unfortunately, such hopes were not realized. Paterno is not an outright hagiography, but it is a squandered opportunity. The book's publication schedule was rushed by nine months—and it shows. Crucial information about Paterno's role in the scandal (much of which didn't emerge until the month before the book hit the shelves is barely acknowledged, and Posnanski's too-charitable assessment of Paterno's responsibility will undermine the virtues of the book for most readers. 

Posnanski's reputation as a writer is deserved, and his ability to relate anecdotes and his careful research are both evident in the first two-thirds of the book. He gets players to tell interesting (and often critical) stories about their former coach. He recounts how Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis made every effort to recruit Paterno as a coach. He finds comments Paterno made to his college newspaper as a senior at Brown University that undermine his later accounts about how becoming a coach was an accidental detour from his real ambition of going to law school. He makes a good case that before Paterno was told about Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of boys in 2001, the coach was an admirable, if not always likable figure.

The crucial event that would ultimately define Paterno’s legacy occurred in 2001. Graduate assistant (and former Penn State quarterback) Mike McQueary told Paterno that he had seen former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the Penn State showers. Sandusky, who had resigned in 1998 after being told by Paterno that he would never be the head coach at Penn State, was a legend in his own right. Sandusky, who Paterno hired as a 25-year-old and was named the defensive coordinator in 1977, became the most lauded defensive coach in the country after Penn State’s stunning upset of Miami's number one team in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. As Posnanski notes, there were critics up to and including Paterno’s own brother who saw Sandusky as the real brains behind the success of Penn State football.

But Sandusky, as we know now, was also a serial child rapist. And yet, he remained free for a decade after McQueary first told Paterno he saw Sandusky assaulting a boy. Paterno—a figure of towering influence on the Penn State campus—did not act to ensure that the authorities investigated Sandusky, informing only Athletic Director Tim Curley of McQueary’s charges. And according to emails collected by FBI Director Louis Freeh, Curley and Gary Schultz, then Penn State's vice president, had agreed to report Sandusky to the state, but changed their minds after Curley spoke to Paterno.

I don't believe that Paterno’s horrible failures regarding Sandusky mean that a biographer has to ignore Paterno’s virtues and accomplishments. But while a fair recounting of Paterno's successes is reasonable, underplaying his flaws is not, and here Posnanski's book falls short. Admittedly, Posnanski does correct some erroneous assumptions that some writers made when the Sandusky scandal first emerged. Many people, myself included, felt that Sandusky’s resigning immediately after he was first investigated for sexual abuse could not have been a coincidence, but apparently it was: Sandusky’s resignation was encouraged by Paterno for pre-existing football and personal reasons that did not seem to have anything to do with the investigation of Sandusky. 

While Posnanski is too credulous about Paterno's later assertions that he was not told about the investigation at the time (which the exhaustive report compiled by former FBI director Louis Freeh after his investigation of the scandal debunked), he does establish that Paterno had been looking to get rid of Sandusky well before 1998. Penn State’s defense had regressed, and Paterno plausibly thought (and wrote in notes to himself) that Sandusky was losing focus and resting on his laurels. He also establishes that the two men strongly disliked each other even when they were mutually successful on the field. But Paterno's key failure was not in 1998. Sandusky, after all, had been cleared by the authorities. Paterno's knowledge of the 1998 investigation was relevant not because Paterno could have stopped him at that point but because it should have made the urgency of contacting the authorities in 2001 even more compelling. This is the point when Posnanski lets Paterno off the hook and ends up destroying the credibility of his book.

Posnanski points out more than once that because of Sandusky’s adoption of six children and The Second Mile, his charity for at-risk boys, he was frequently investigated by child-abuse experts and other child welfare authorities. These authorities were fooled, and Posnanski implies that Paterno could not be expected to see things the professionals didn't. The problem with this argument is that these experts had not had been contacted by someone who witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy. If the argument against Paterno was that he should have known about Sandusky's crimes in 1994, Sandusky's ability to fool experts would be relevant. But nobody believes that this is where Paterno failed.

So much of Posnanski's implicit defense of Paterno's inaction is a non sequitur. Posnanski's treatment of Paterno's failure to alert the proper authorities or follow up with his superiors after speaking with McQueary in 2001 is similarly inadequate. He seems to accept Paterno's version of the story—that McQueary, although describing acts of a "sexual nature," was more vague in his description than the Freeh report concluded. Even if we give Paterno the benefit of the doubt, this isn't much of a defense—whether or not McQueary told him that he had witnessed anal rape, any report of sexual abuse should have triggered an investigation by proper authorities, particularly since Paterno knew that Sandusky had been investigated before.

Presumably because of the decision to move up the publication date of the book by nearly a year, Posnanski acknowledges the crucial e-mail sent by athletic director Tim Curley to Penn State President Graham Spanier showing that a decision to report Sandusky to the state had been reversed after Curley spoke to Paterno. But he doesn't acknowledge the importance of this sequence of events or digest it into the rest of his argument. Curley's e-mail makes any defense of Paterno impossible unless you think that the other members of Penn State's hierarchy changed their minds over Paterno's objections, which is exceptionally implausible (and Posnanski does not argue it). Whether he actively intervened to preserve his program's reputation or passively acquiesced as he knew that nothing was going to be done about sexual abuse that had been directed witnessed by his employee, Paterno failed the biggest test of his career and several more young boys were victimized as a result.

Posnanski does not entirely exonerate Paterno—in the book’s concluding chapter, he recounts telling Paterno that he "should have done more" because "right or wrong, people expect more of you." This hedged criticism, however, is lodged amid many nostalgic reminisces from family members and former players about Paterno's better qualities. Posnanski came to State College to write a particular type of biography, and despite the scandal that emerged during the writing, he didn't take the opportunity to fundamentally change the direction of the book. The definitive account of Paterno and the Sandusky scandal will, apparently, not be written by the gifted reporter who was there as it happened.

You may also like