Keeping Score

Bad Timing: Sizing Up the Joe Paterno Book

A new Joe Paterno bio, written by one of America's best sportswriters, Joe Posnanski, is intriguing. But it just doesn't fit the times.

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Matthew Stockman / Allsport / Getty Images

Former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno looks on during a game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Stadium in Evanston, Ill.

I first approached Paterno, the much-anticipated biography of the late, legendary, and now disgraced coach of the Penn State football team, like many readers, I suspect. I sought out the stuff on Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator who, in June, was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys and will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison. For this, the book is quite helpful: right there, on page 247, is a chapter entitled “Sandusky.” And in these pages, author Joe Posnanski, formerly of Sports Illustrated and now senior writer for a soon-to-be launched website called Sports on Earth, sheds light on the relationship between the head coach and his once-popular assistant, a former pillar of the State College community.

“The two men,” Posnanski writes, “despised each other from the start.”

The chapter doesn’t definitively answer the question on everyone’s mind — how much did Joe Paterno really know about Sandusky’s crimes, and when exactly did he become aware of them? But it untangles a complex dynamic between the two crucial characters. Paterno and Sandusky would nearly fight on the sideline. Paterno thought Sandusky was a goofball. During Sandusky’s first season as a full-time assistant, in 1969, Paterno spotted Sandusky on a practice film, “running onto the field waving his arms like a bird and shouting: ‘The breakdown coach is on his way, the breakdown coach is on his way.’ It was ridiculous.”

(PHOTOS: Joe Paterno: Dec. 21, 1926–Jan. 22, 2012)

Paterno lit into him. Towards the end of Sandusky’s Penn State coaching career, Paterno thought Sandusky loafed. Sandusky thought Paterno betrayed him: he told a friend that Paterno promised that he’d be the next Penn State head coach, then refused to retire. Paterno wasn’t the biggest fan of The Second Mile, the youth charity Sandusky founded. Sandusky was always bringing children around practices and the facilities, and, according to Posnanski, the “kids annoyed the hell” out of Paterno. To Paterno, they were just a distraction.

So why didn’t Paterno just fire Sandusky? “He felt loyalty to Sandusky for all his successes,” Posnanski writes. “He also understood the politics. Because of the team’s defensive success, his gregarious personality, and the Second Mile, Sandusky was almost as prominent in the Penn State community as he was.”

So Paterno clearly cared about appearances. Was that why he didn’t more aggressively report the abuse allegations against Sandusky to the police? Was that one reason why, the Freeh Report concludes, Paterno and other top Penn State officials, “in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity …. repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the university’s board of trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large?”

(MORE: How Penn State Can Move Forward)

One of the book’s final chapters, “Fall,” adds more intrigue. Posnanski neatly narrates the swift collapse of Paterno’s coaching career. After the grand jury presentment against Sandusky went public on November 5, Paterno was still in denial. “I’ve got Nebraska to think about,” Paterno told his son, Scott, who was trying to pry information out of his father. “I can’t worry about this.” Penn State hosted Nebraska the following week (losing 17-14). “I had to do everything I could to not cry right then,” Scott said. Scott told his mother that her husband’s job was in grave jeopardy. “Scotty, that will kill him,” Sue Paterno said. Paterno died a few months later, on Jan. 22, of lung cancer. He was 85.

Still, these chapters can’t help but feel somewhat unsatisfying. The book has no bombshell confessions from Paterno, no documents that absolve him from blame. That’s not Posnanski’s fault: only Joe Paterno knows what was in his heart and mind, and he’s no longer here to offer further insight. Posnanski reports that after Paterno’s family forced him to read the horrific Sandusky grand jury presentment, and told him that people were saying he “had covered up for a child predator,” Paterno replied: “How could they think that? They really think that if I knew someone was hurting kids, I wouldn’t stop it? Don’t they know me? Don’t they know what my life has been about?” Paterno agreed that, in hindsight, he should have done more to stop Sandusky, but in reporting the accusations to his direct superiors at Penn State, rather than the police, Paterno thought he was acting appropriately.

As for the rest of the bio, the material not related to the Sandusky scandal and its fallout, covering the first 84 years, not the final couple of months, of Paterno’s life: I can’t speak to that part, because I haven’t read it yet. And I’m not sure I will any time soon.

That’s nothing against Posnanski, one of the best sportswriters in the country. It’s simply a timing issue. Posnanski started this project well before the scandal broke, and he in large part stuck to his original plans. “What follows is the story of Joe Paterno’s life,” he writes at the beginning of the book. But on the heels of the Freeh Report, which contained evidence that Paterno did know about the initial, 1998 allegation of Sandusky’s inappropriate behavior – he previously denied being aware of it – and that Paterno had more influence on Penn State’s handling of the allegations that he had previously let on, Paterno’s life story, familiar to most sports fans to begin with, doesn’t seem very germane.

That’s not to say Paterno’s rich life doesn’t deserve attention. Certainly, it does. But right now, the wounds – remember, the former director of the FBI concluded that Paterno put his own interests over children who were sexually abused – are too fresh. (In an interview with the New Yorker, published on Wednesday, former Penn State president Graham Spanier, whom the Freeh report also said “exhibited striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims,” said the report “is wrong, it’s unfair, it is deeply flawed, it has many errors and omissions.”) An illustration of Paterno’s impact, no matter how complex, or positive, it might have been, isn’t going to change Freeh’s verdict. Over time, as this case perhaps continues to twist, consuming a full account of Paterno’s life may feel more appropriate.

The market doesn’t seem to agree. Just a day after the August 21 release of Paterno, the book climbed to number 13 on Amazon’s best-seller list. People may be reading it cover to cover. Or maybe they’re just paying for the Sandusky stuff. Either way, the message is clear: whether people love him, hate him, or land somewhere in between, they care about Paterno. We’ll be grappling with his life, and legacy, for years.

MORE: Every Day Was A Mistake: How Should Penn State Deal With Joe Paterno?

16 comments
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Frank L
Frank L

Didn't bother to read the whole book?  Not sure why I wasted my time reading the whole article.

Gritter1834
Gritter1834

I have read the Freeh Report, I have followed every piece of information available, I have read every POV since the start and to this day and I still cannot find a single fact "proving" (this word seems to be inconsistent, but used frequently in this situation) that Joe Paterno orchestrated some sinister, clandestine cover up to protect his beloved brand.  I see a collection of bullet points and opinion that seem to be created to simplify a horrific course of events perpetrated by a monster that has been found (PROVEN) guilty in a court of law.  I will maintain my position until some FACT is presented to the contrary as the opinions of what happened with Paterno are inconsistent with his life's work...Question- if no facts or proof are ever offerred up what do we do to restore this man's reputation and achievement?

calhounite1
calhounite1

Plausible deniability. Otherwise known as blown coverup insurance. Ask any government employee, politician, etc. how this works. The idea is to act EXACTLY as one would be expected to act with absolutely no knowledge of the crime.  The best execution of plausible deniability is actually aiding in, even partipating in the crime itself to the extent of demonstrating utter obliviousness to the reality of the ongoing crime. Then, if the coverup is blown up, this pattern of action serves as PROOF of an imbecilic level of ignorance of the crime.

Of course, this means that the denier is willfully, delilberately, and with full acknowledgement of the consequences is engaging in criminal acts. The Freeh report puts the lie to the farce. Paterno raped those kids the same as if he had been in the shower alone with them himself. Even more so than Sandusky. Sandusky is a disease.

Paterno

the devil.

Tommy T
Tommy T

You are an idiot and obviously don't know anything about Joe Paterno, his life's work, and the multitude of former players who love him like a father. Louis Freeh and his so-called report are is so biased and full of unfounded conclusions that it hardly is worth the paper its printed on. Sandusky is a monster and deserves the harshest punishment allowable, but to vilify Joe Paterno is ridiculous. Get your news from somewhere other than ESPN before you throw accusations around. God Bless the victims of Sandusky's heinous crimes, I pray they can find peace and happiness in life. God also bless the Penn State community, the Pareno family, and the PSU football team as they enter a new era under some very difficult circumstances.

Tim Berton
Tim Berton

There were dozens of people who were far more responsible than Paterno for not catching Sandusky sooner, especially the law enforcement and child protection agencies who investigated Sandusky in 1998 and left him go unpunished and unrestricted. Second Mile was especially responsible because they knew of both 1998 and 2001 Sandusky shower incidents. Who buried or ignored that 1998 psychologist report concluding Sandusky was a "likely pedophile?"

Any regular man who admitted to showering with and hugging Second Mile boys in the showers in 1998 would never have been allowed alone again with a Second Mile boy. Sandusky was protected by child protection agencies in 1998 because he was an insider in the child protection field.

The Attorney General and the media targeted Paterno because he was the most famous and it made the juiciest story. It is hard to believe that it was an accident that the Attorney General charged Sandusky right after Paterno broke the record for most wins.

Edward Szewczyk
Edward Szewczyk

A book isn't supposed to "fit the times." It's supposed to fit the facts. I've read the Freeh Report from cover to cover and I have seen nothing demonstrating that Paterno did anything wrong. Until it's proven otherwise, as far as I'm concerned, Paterno was railroaded by a hysterical media, led by ESPN, which decided on an anti-Paterno agenda the second the news about Sandusky came out, and a panicked and cowardly Board of Trustees, which fired the coach without giving him any chance to defend himself after 61 years of service. The Board fired Paterno first and then hired Freeh, supposedly, to learn the facts. The Freeh Report, by the way, is a miserable excuse for an investigation. It attempts to make up for a lack of facts with wild and unsupported accusations and "conclusions."

Miranda
Miranda

The real quote is...(scott says)--"Dad, did you know anything about Sandusky?"  Paterno says, "Other than the thing Mike told me, no"...Scott says..."Nothing?  No rumors?  The coaches never talked about it?"  Paterno--"No.  I don't listen to rumors. Nothing"...Scott--"Dad this is really important.  If there is anything you heard..."  Paterno--"I didn't hear anything, why are you badgering me?  What do I know about Jerry Sandusky?  I've got Nebraska to think about, I can't worry about this."  Scott--I had to do everything I could to not cry right then"

Miranda
Miranda

Do they teach you how to misquote people in college??  LIke...is there a class in college for reporters that teach you to take the truth and twist it around to fit your particular story??  I like how you stated above that Penn State lost to Nebraska and then Paterno's son Scott said "I could cry right now"...total misquote...and also the way you left things out of the story about "Paterno's" Nebraska comment makes it appear that Joe only cared about football and not the victims or something.  Nice twisting of information...

Albert E. Bannister
Albert E. Bannister

I am so tired or everyone talking about Posnaski's poor timing.  Article's about Sandusky and Penn State's cover-up were running in the local paper for at least 7 months before the indictment was announced but everyone acts like it was such a shock.  Posnaski was living there so it's not like he didn't know he just choose to ignore as it didn't fit his preconceived concept for his book. 

Ksyxxfotos
Ksyxxfotos

Well since you did not read the book I guess I should just not read the book. And I guess I should just accept the veridict of a man who as head of the FBI was held in contempt of congress for helping janet reno and bill clinton cover up crimes of their own. Yeah that must be sound unbiased reporting. I wonder if loue used the same level of professionalism and through research that the author of this article use for his book review.

Albert E. Bannister
Albert E. Bannister

You know Penn State choose Freeh, right?  I didn't hear any Penn Staters complaining about the choice until AFTER he released his report.  If Freeh is as bad as you now claim well then its just admission of another PSU screw up. 

Miranda
Miranda

 Gov Tom Corbett chose Freeh...

Due Process
Due Process

Corbett forced Louis Freeh on the BOT per a BOT member.

Corbett was the AG in 1998 when the psychologist report identifying Sandusky as a likely Ped was pulled for a 2nd report by a non-licensed CYS report from the man who approved Sandusky's adoptions.

Corbett worked for Gov Tom idge who worked side by sire with Freeh after 2001 as director of homeland security.

Corbett took 3 years to indict Sandusky and had a vendetta against Spanier and Paterno.

You want answers, look at Corbett.  Find out who pulled the 1st psychologist report in 1998.

Anon
Anon

The author didn't bother to read the book, yet commented on excerpts. Lazy and lame. Surely Time Magazine could do better than this.

Stefan
Stefan

Great work reviewing a book you haven't read!! I used to do that all the time...in high school.  C-

Solaka
Solaka

Yes, the timing is poor.  Now is not the time to learn more about this man and consider whether he might have been capable of doing what he's accused of.  Now is the time to continue our emotional, visceral reaction to this story, and to continue to accept "Freeh's verdict" as our own without further consideration.  Great points.


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