TMFW reviews Paterno by Joe Posnanski and still has questions

August 29, 2012

By Joe Posnanski
Simon & Schuster, $28

By Paul Bowen
BDA Sports Editor Emeritus

To say that events conspired to throw Joe Posnanski a wicked curve is to understate the case considerably.  Posnanski, a former sportswriter for the Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated, had moved to State College, Pennsylvania to begin research on the book that would eventually become Paterno when merely the biggest scandal in the history of college athletics was uncovered.  And an investigation commissioned by Penn State ultimately concluded that the late Joseph Vincent Paterno, the subject of his book, was in the big middle of it.

“This book is not a defense of Joe Paterno” the author tells us on page 10.  And then Mr. Posnanski proceeds to spend about a third of the book attempting to cast doubt on the conclusions drawn from the available evidence about Mr. Paterno’s complicity in the cover up of sex crimes committed against little boys by Jerry Sandusky, his former assistant.

The book is a biography of an amazing man, who while not without his flaws, namely a red hot temper and a big mouth by Joe Pa’s own admission, brought Penn State football into national prominence while changing attitudes about East Coast football at the same time.  He and his wife donated a million dollars to the library at Penn State.  He made the education of his players a priority in what came to be called “The Grand Experiment.” 

He was capable of astonishing kindness.  The book tells the story of how Mr. Paterno went out of his way to join a table of Muslim women in a coffee shop after 9-11.  It tells of the interest that he took in his black players.  It recounts him caring about the health and welfare of running back John Cappaletti’s younger brother who had leukemia.  It is the story of a man whose mantra was “Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”

And yet, to my mind the football aspect of the Joe Paterno story, while certainly not irrelevant, is somewhat beside the point given the horrific and astonishing turn of events of the last year.  The author suggests that we take a longer more balanced view of the man’s 84-year life.  But I mean to suggest that this is not possible given both the gravity and the immediacy of the scandal.  This cannot be a mere book about the life of a football coach.  It should have been, and might have been, a book about how the cult of big time football caused decent otherwise law abiding men to turn a blind eye to the violation of a child in the shower of the football locker room.

But it is not.  And the author ties himself in knots in an attempt to cast Paterno’s actions when told of the horrific scene in the best light possible.  In retrospect, his methodology is clear.  The report issued by Louis Freeh’s law firm, the results of which were revealed by a spittin’ mad Judge Freeh himself, is mentioned on page 11.  Nowhere else is it mentioned. 
The reader is reminded that the “Freeh Report” concluded that there was a “total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State University.”  Joe Paterno was one of the “senior leaders” named in the report. 

The “Freeh Report,” adopted in its entirety as true by Penn State’s Board of Trustees was the product of 430 interviews by lawyers and former law enforcement types the review of voluminous records including 3.5 million emails.  The author’s investigation is a little skimpier and mainly requires him to have it both ways.

We are advised that Mr. Paterno was a compulsive note taker.  And yet there is no mention in those notes of concerns about Mr. Sandusky being a creep.  Therefore, he must not have known.  Not so fast.  It is an equally plausible conclusion that Mr. Paterno, being no dummy, made sure that he did not memorialize any of his thoughts in writing.  Further, we know that a family member went through those notes prior to the author’s examination.  This also is the flaw behind Mr. Posnanski’s conclusions concerning other notes that had been “reconstructed.”

According to the Freeh report, Paterno’s reason for not turning Sandusky over to the authorities himself when he learned about the incident in the shower in 2001 was “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I didn’t want to jeopardize what the university procedure was.”  Elsewhere in the book Mr. Paterno makes occasional references to not having as much power and influence as people thought he had.  This from a man who Penn State asked to deliver the commencement address and who threw the President of the university out of his house with impunity when Gordon Spanier came over to ask for his resignation in 2004.

Concerning the e-mail traffic between Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz concerning whether to turn Sandusky into law enforcement, the one which contains the phrase “[A]fter giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday, -I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps.,” Posnanski writes that “[O]thers familiar with the e-mails believed instead that Paterno had demanded that they confront Sandusky.”  “Others?” Who?  And how could these “others” believe this in light of the fact that no action was taken?  Posnanski concedes that this might not be correct.  So why write it?

Much is made by the author of how many people in the Penn State brass were reluctant to turn Sandusky over because they were not entirely convinced that there was anything overtly sexual going on in the shower on the night in question.  Indeed the stage is set for these doubts earlier in the book where much is made of the “knucklehead” Sandusky’s propensity for practical jokes and lack of seriousness.  Maybe, it is suggested, they had reason to believe that this was just another example of “horseplay” on Sandusky’s part.

Really?  You have a naked man who is not the parent or guardian of a child in the shower after hours in a vacant locker room.  And there are any doubts that it is sexual in nature?  Or at least sufficiently inappropriate enough to turn it over to law enforcement?  What planet were these people from?

Finally, an associate of quotes him as asking the question “What is sodomy anyway?” when confronted with the Grand Jury presentment.  Please.  This from a devout Roman Catholic with an Ivy League education in the Classics who undoubtedly heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah at least once or twice at Mass during his 84 years.

To his credit Paterno admitted that he should have done more when confronted with what happened in the shower.  Perhaps he was able to find a measure of peace before he died.  But the question that is still hanging out there is why didn’t such a man described in the book as someone who “had a pathological need to do the right thing” fail to do just that when the safety of a child was in the balance.  That is the question that still remains.

And Paterno fails to answer it. 

The book inserts the famous quote from Cato the Elder midway through. “I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one.”  It is a good thing that Joe Paterno didn’t live long enough for men to ask him why they tore his down.









  • Comment by daviddurr — Sep 3,2012 at 2:40 pm

    I haven’t read Mr. Posnanski’s book, and I will, but I grew up in Pennsylvania an ardent Penn State fan and a disciple of St. Joe, so I know the man as well as a fan can. I’m sure Posnanski’s book reveals some insights gleaned from those who knew Paterno personally, but my understanding of Joe Pa has been formed by 40 years of following both the football team and the man. I admire both while trying to understand how such a good man blundered so miserably at a critical point in his life and failed to protect kids who suffered tragically because of his failure to act.

    Your review may offer some insight into Paterno’s failure. I know from following the man, and Posnanski cites as well, Paterno’s commitment to doing “the right thing.” It’s apparent in the good works he performed personally and in the standards he set for players at Penn State for 50 years. It may also offer some insight into his actions, although it does little to explain his ultimate failure to protect those kids.

    Paterno believed he had done “the right thing” when he reported the 2001 allegations to the University’s senior administrators. He commented in the press that he didn’t know how to handle the issue and didn’t want to jeopardize the University’s procedures, so he reported it to those who should know and should have acted. The failure of the senior administration at Penn State is criminal, and I hope some of those people do time for it. Still, reporting the allegations doesn’t remove Paterno’s personal responsibility in the matter.

    I understand Paterno’s loyalty to the institution and believe that he felt as if he had done his duty as a member of the University’s staff and hoped that the administration would do “the right thing.” I find it completely out of character for Paterno to then conspire with the administration to cover up the allegations. As Posnanski posits, it seems as likely to me that the man with “a red hot temper and a big mouth” would have opposed a cover-up. Certainly, his opinion of the University’s administrators and their procedures was apparent when he threw Spanier out of his house. Whether he wanted to confront Sandusky or not we’ll probably never know, and the question of Paterno’s complicity in a cover-up is unproven, and while I admit a bias, I think unlikely.

    What has been proven is that Paterno had reason to be suspicious of Sandusky. After the first allegations in 1998 and the second in 2001, Sandusky continued to be a regular fixture in the Penn State locker room often accompanied by children. Whether Paterno understood the definition of sodomy or not, he certainly knew what pedophilia is and had every reason to question Sandusky’s intentions. And he did nothing. He may not have been able to control the actions of the Pennsylvania State Police in 1998 or Penn State’s administration in 2001, but he certainly controlled the locker room at Penn State until he was fired in 2012.

    “There’s the rub.” Despite his knowledge of the allegations, he allowed Sandusky to continue to use the Penn State football program and its facilities to lure young kids into misery. I find this revolting and bewildering, and I can’t find any explanation or excuse for Paterno’s unwillingness to act. Perhaps Paterno’s desire to protect the football program tilted his normally straight moral compass, but I’ll have to chew on that idea for awhile before I can digest it.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Sep 3,2012 at 4:28 pm

    I haven’t read (much of) the book either, and I probably won’t get around to it, so I’d appreciate your take on it after you do read it.

    I think I’ve probably said enough about the case already, but I don’t just think JoePa was complicit, I think that all of us are a little complicit. This isn’t the most popular view, I guess, I heard Me Kiper on the radio the other day droning on about how this was all one man’s fault, and that Sandusky was the only one who bears any responsibility for what happened at Penn State. I just don’t agree with that.

  • Comment by donmccrmck — Sep 3,2012 at 9:31 pm

    Good review, and interesting comment. I’m not going to read it either, and have have only what knowledge I’ve picked up from newspapers and magazines, but Sandusky was unanimously convicted by twelve local citizens all of whom believed the most important charges beyond any reasonable doubt. All kinds of people had suspicions or saw things that worried them, from horrified janitors to assistant coaches to his Sandusky’s wife, and lots more have to have seen things that aroused suspicion. As Moving Finger rightly points out, an old man routinely taking showers with little boys is just weird all by itself. The haunting question about all of this is how could so many people know so much for so long and not take steps to protect the poor boys? Anyway, good review. Thoughtful commentary.

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