The New York Times reminded everyone that Joe Posnanski is still writing his Paterno book, and it will be one far different and more difficult than he intended. Posnanski got a sweet $750,000 advance to crank out “the most amazing football story ever told” for Father’s Day 2013. He had the fortune (or misfortune) to be present just as the Jerry Sandusky scandal napalmed that narrative. Now what?
Posnanski faces a decision about how to work the ending into the book, but more accurately it’s a decision about what type of book to write.
His initial premise, Paterno as great man, is a traditional sportswriting trope dating from the earliest days of organized sport in the U.S. and, really, from the 19th century ethos of Muscular Christianity in Britain. Competitive athletics breeds character. Those successful in competitive athletics are romantic heroes. Narratives are tight and uncomplicated. Truth can be met with hostility.
That is the perspective the Sandusky scandal killed. Paterno can’t be a man of incredible fortitude and character, then show neither when those traits were most needed. It’s incongruous. The only way to reconcile Paterno successfully is to divorce his story entirely from that trope. Acknowledge his humanity. Treat him with historical objectivity.
Winston Churchill was not a hero. No modern, credible historian would make that claim. He was a politician. His fervent opposition to Nazi totalitarianism undeniably did the world a great service. That does not alter his responsibility for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign during World War I and for hardline (even by his generation’s standards) colonial policies that were often spiteful and destructive. Both parts are indelible and can be understood with objectivity and context.
Joe Paterno did great things for Penn State University. He was a role model and father figure for many of his players. He also did not act decisively enough when informed by a first-hand witness a former colleague might have been raping a child in the team’s shower facility. Both facets are pivotal for evaluating Joe Paterno’s life. Diminishing the scandal’s importance to emphasize his positive traits would be disingenuous and, given the circumstances, distasteful.
Men can do great things. Men aren’t great. It’s a profound life lesson, even if not ideal for Father’s Day.
[Photo via Getty]
Previously: Jerry Sandusky Was Termed a “Likely Pedophile” in 1998 Penn State Police Report
Previously: When Joe Paterno Died, He Took College Football Sentimentalism With Him
Previously: Joe Paterno Should Resign as Penn State’s Football Head Coach