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Essay: The Posnanski Dilemma

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Joe Posnanski

In the mostly forgotten 1994 movie “Cobb,” Tommy Lee Jones played famously cantankerous early-20th century baseball legend Ty Cobb. For some reason the movie was not about Cobb’s baseball career, but rather about Cobb as an old man, fighting with a biographer who was commissioned to ghostwrite his memoirs but was secretly writing a warts-and-all book on the side.

The New York Times Sunday looked at an ongoing media drama about which I had been very curious, that sort of reminds me of the sportswriter’s dilemma in that movie.

Here’s the basic gist of it: Joe Posnanski, a tremendously gifted and respected sports columnist and author, last summer began work on an authorized, definitive biography of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. There have been many biographies of Paterno, but most authors have not had anything close to this type of access to the coach and his family.

An award-winning journalist who worked for Sports Illustrated until he recently departed for a new venture, Posnanski’s name lends a veneer of respectability to any project with which it was associated. His 2007 book The Soul of Baseball, about a cross-country road trip Posnanski took with his friend, the nonagenarian Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil, ranks among the greatest books about baseball that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read quite a lot of them.

The sports blogosphere and its top arbiters- people like the editors of Deadspin and baseball blogger-turned-Parks and Recreation creator Michael “Ken Tremendous” Schur- have long loved Posnanski, and they’re not a crowd that’s known for its respect of mainstream sportswriters.

On top of his newspaper, magazine and book work, this respect is largely due to Posnanski’s own blog, in which he often gets personal, embraces a nuanced, knowledgeable take on sports, and goes on at tremendous length for a large audience that devours every word. Unlike the old, crotchety, hard-drinking stereotype- and let’s be honest, reality- of most of today’s sportswriters, Posnanski embraces both social media and cutting-edge statistical analysis. He also seems to have a legitimate, deep love of the games about which he writes.

Last fall, Posnanski set up shop in State College, was given close access to Paterno and the team, and set to writing the book, which was pitched, according to the Times, as a feel-good sports story about Paterno’s decades of selfless heroism.

“This book,” according to the original proposal obtained by the Times, “will tell the remarkable story about a man who could have been anything but decided that the best way he could help change America was one college football player at a time.” The book’s release was timed to coincide with Father’s Day.

You can probably guess what happened next. In November, the most calamitous scandal in the history of college sports resulted in the indictment of former PSU assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on dozens of child molestation charges, as well as two university officials for the cover-up. Both the president of the university and Paterno were fired, leading to on-campus riots. Not long afterwords, Paterno went public with his diagnosis of lung cancer, a disease to which he succumbed in January.

It was one of the most shocking turns of events ever in sports, and one of the best sportswriters in the world had a front-row seat for all of it. You know those stories about baseball writers who had their game story done in the 7th inning, and then needed to rewrite it after the home team blew it in the 9th? This was that, times about a thousand.

As illustrated in the Times piece, as well as a Sportsjournalists.com discussion thread a few months ago, Posnanski appears both heartsick and tremendously conflicted ever since the scandal broke. According to the Times:

 Then, too, there was Posnanski, the Paterno believer and biographer faced with one of the more remarkable late-project twists to reckon with. Would he halt his project, or recalibrate its timetable to allow him to trace the fuller meaning, if there was fuller meaning, to the revelations and accusations concerning Paterno? Could there be more secrets? Or would the imperative be to publish sooner rather than later, to maximize the storm of notoriety? There are, after all, 550,000 living Penn State alumni, many of them, judging by their protests and letters to the editor, hungry to have the Paterno they thought they knew delivered back to them.

The author wrote a post called “Underground” last November, stating that he had unplugged from Twitter, Facebook and his blog and had even stopped reading the news. Also in November, Deadspin published quotes Posnanski delivered while addressing a class at Penn State, which included Posnanski calling Paterno a scapegoat, criticizing the school’s treatment of the coach, and generally taking the line favored by PSU partisans who revere Paterno.

In late January, Tom Scocca of the normally pro-Posnanski Deadspin pushed back even further, in a post begging Posnanski to “stop writing mealy-mouthed nonsense about Joe Paterno.” He specifically referred to Posnanski, in an obituary of Paterno published in SI, calling the Sandusky shower incident “a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester.”

It’s hard to disagree with Scocca’s argument. That was a horrible choice of words that I suspect the author would like to have back. And the backlash appears to have bothered Posnanski; he has not addressed the subject since, nor did he cooperate with the Times article.

My take on the scandal is that Paterno put a huge stain on his mostly distinguished career with a truly horrible error in judgment late in his life, that if he wasn’t equipped to make that sort of call he should have retired years before he did, and that the university community disgraced itself, possibly irreparably, by rioting over Paterno’s firing, as opposed to at the revelation that a serial child molester was allowed to run free on campus and many, many people- JoePa included- failed to stop it.

But you can see that Posnanski is in a tough position here. On the one hand, he has his professional obligations as a journalist and his reputation to consider. On the other hand, he likely feels a certain debt to Paterno’s memory, as well as the wishes of his family, who granted him access and cooperation. As we’ve seen from his work with Buck O’Neil, Posnanski has shown tremendous loyalty to those close to him, even when they’re deceased. He also, of course, has to write a good book.

I will read Posnanski’s book when it comes out. It is my hope that with some distance and perspective, he can produce a book that gives Paterno’s life and coaching career its due, yet holds him to account for what led to its end. One that approaches the events of November 2011 (and for that matter, March 2002) with the sort of nuance, subtlety and journalistic grace with which the author’s name is associated.

If it’s a fawning look at Paterno’s decades of omnipotence, culminating in a framing of his firing as a railroading and the implication that the Penn State Board of Trustees “killed” JoePa? Then I’ll be disappointed. Chances are Sara Ganim, the Harrisburg Patriot-News wunderkid who broke the Sandusky story and won a Pulitzer Prize last month for it at age 24, will at some point write a definitive book about the case.

Speaking of Ty Cobb: In all of his many long blog posts about baseball history, Posnanski has of course written about the Georgia Peach a time or two. In this 2007 post- which mentions the above movie- Posnanski ranked the best peak hitting performances in baseball history.

While pointing out that Cobb is “the designated jerk in the Hall of Fame,” and that he may have killed a man, Posnanski still ranks Cobb’s 1909-1913 seasons the 15th-best stretch in baseball history, while also praising him as “undoubtedly baseball’s most driven player.”

No, Joe Paterno wasn’t nearly the awful person Ty Cobb was. But he had two sides. Hopefully, when the book is done, Posnanski will be able to present both sides of Joe Paterno, too.

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