Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski is in a tough spot. He's a gifted writer and by all appearances a decent guy. His decency is his defining characteristic; he grew up rooting for doomed Cleveland teams and covered the worthless Kansas City Royals, but he never gave in to the urge to be a hatchet man. If Posnanski sometimes scores his work for strings, it's not to play the readers for saps, but because he's gone out of his way to be considerate to his subjects.
The subject at hand, though, is Joe Paterno. Posnanski spent the football season in State College, Pa., immersing himself in the Penn State program for a book, a sympathetic portrait of a great coach in the late-late autumn of his career. Obviously there would be some bittersweet elements: maybe a look at the rough moments in Paterno's decades as godfather to a whole university; presumably a few concerns or regrets about whether he should have retired at full capacity, rather than driving himself and the program on into his 80s, till the all-time coaching wins record was within his reach. Basically, though, a tale of a full, successful life, inspiring and detailed and ready to ship tons of copies for Father's Day.
Instead, the story ends up with Joe Paterno fired from his job and dead soon thereafter. The old saint of the sideline turned out to be deeply implicated in a true-crime story of institutional corruption and human depravity. The roar from the grandstands of Beaver Stadium was drowned out by the "rhythmic slapping sounds" in the grand jury report on the child-rape allegations against Jerry Sandusky.
At least, outside Happy Valley it was. But Posnanski has been deep inside Happy Valley. As the Sandusky scandal engulfed Paterno and the university's top officials in November, Posnanski spoke to a journalism class there and told the students Paterno was a "scapegoat" who had "tried to do the right thing," the victim of a "rush to judgment." Posnanski told the class that he was "heartbroken" about how events had affected Paterno and his family.
OK, that happens. Posnanski was close to Paterno. Shocking news has a way of making people say things that are less than judicious.
But now Posnanski has a brief obituary for Paterno in SI. And:
I asked Paterno at one point in that last month if he hoped that people would come to see and measure his full life rather than a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester. "It doesn't matter what people think of me," he said. "I've lived my life. I just hope the truth comes out. And I hope the victims find peace."
A single, hazy event.
A single, hazy event.
Jerry Sandusky is charged with 52 criminal offenses, spanning 15 years, against 10 different victims. Presumably Posnanski is referring to the one incident in which Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach at the time, said he had seen Sandusky anally raping a boy in the Penn State football showers and reported the rape to Paterno. The "hazy" part would be the dispute about whether or not McQueary specifically told Paterno that the sexual abuse he had seen perpetrated against a child in the football showers was anal rape. Either way, Paterno told the university authorities, thereby discharging his minimum legal obligations, and he did nothing else, as the Penn State authorities in turn did nothing else, while Jerry Sandusky kept running a statewide charity for children.
The question Posnanski posed to Paterno is vapid nonsense. He was asking the old man to bullshit him. It's like the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins declining to challenge Paterno when he told her he'd "never heard of, of rape and a man."
That is to say, it's like the story the poet Donald Hall wrote in the New Yorker this month, in an essay about his life at age 83, in which a museum guard approaches him to tell him that the artist who made the sculpture he's looking at was named Henry Moore—"I had written a book about Moore, and knew him well," Hall notes—and later, seeing him coming out of the cafeteria in his wheelchair, asks, "Did we have a nice din-din?"
Old people are not children. Old people have, on average, seen more things and worse things than young or middle-aged people have. Joe Paterno was not stupid, and he was not naive.
And Jerry Sandusky was not some shadowy figure on the margins of Paterno's life. He was hired as a graduate assistant in Paterno's first season as head coach, in 1966, and he became Paterno's most important collaborator. Sandusky's coaching—first of linebackers, then of the entire defense—was essential to Paterno's success. Paterno's success made Sandusky famous and respected enough to run a statewide charity for children.
There's no Joe Paterno story without Jerry Sandusky, and there's no Jerry Sandusky scandal without Joe Paterno. The mythology surrounding Paterno and Penn State—the righteous and good-hearted king, ruling a kingdom built in his image—was what allowed the systemic rot to spread. Penn State wasn't the kind of place where terrible things could happen, even as they apparently did happen.
Before the inaction on McQueary's accusation in 2002, there was the 1998 police report that went nowhere and the decision in 1999 to inform Sandusky he wouldn't become Penn State's head coach. Soon after, he was out of the football program. Out of the football program and further into his children's charity work. Nobody wanted to ruin the beautiful story of Penn State football. Now we're supposed to hear that beautiful story told over again, in a gentle haze, as if nobody knows any better.