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Book Review: "Paterno" Can't Detach the Man From the Myth

Joe Posnanski’s “Paterno” sets out with a daunting mission: to excise the man from the myth and to explain why the man made such an apparently callous, inhuman decision. Posnanski may be a skilled technician, but his struggle with the former blunts any prospect he had for doing the latter.

Posnanski begins with the following quotation from Bill James.

“We have difficulty as a nation – this is American and it relates to our particular time – we have difficulty admiring people. We take such pride in our skepticism, the celebration and the virtue of accomplishment, is wandering lost somewhere. It is the age of the antihero.”

Be wary when Bill James treads outside the bounds of baseball statistics, and offers conclusions rather than questions. Posnanski leaves unquestioned the notion that historicism is “skepticism” rather than intellectual rigor. Great men exist beyond great achievements. This false trope is particularly American and most particularly found in sportswriting. Sports fans seldom want to read the truth. Posnanski frames his narrative by trumpeting the very ethos that created the false myth of Paterno.

Posnanski’s biography fleshes out some details, but largely maintains the establishment narrative accurate in the public domain through 2010. Joe Paterno was a man shaped by his Brooklyn upbringing, his study of classical literature, his abnormal sense of propriety and his obsession with football success. His commitment to academics and character building was genuine. He was not caught up in the trappings of wealth. Ignore the beach house, the private plane usage and the no-interest loans. He includes Paterno not being a saint, not being the greatest husband or father and being difficult with those around him. Those caveats are necessary window dressing to the romanticized hero. They do not offer balance.

He shows the man in whom, most, including his closest friends and family members, believed. He presents topic-specific notes, but does not pierce the onion layers of Paterno’s psyche. This inner world remains a mystery, which hamstrings the book as it plunges into “murkier waters.” Paterno remains an enigma, lending even greater confusion to his decline.

We see Paterno become more irascible with less of a filter as he ages, though there is no coherent picture of his faculties. He can be a cool, rational and introspective actor, such as when he outmaneuvers Spanier to keep his job in 2004 (three years after the Sandusky incident. He can also be a confused old man too naive to understand when speaking with Mike McQueary and not knowing what “sodomy” means. His competence level seems to depend on whatever fits the most sympathetic interpretation for his conduct.

Posnanski concludes Paterno was the doddering fool when confronted with Sandusky’s shower incident. He merely had a “vague” understanding from one conversation with McQueary and did not grasp the full weight of what happened. He did not “do enough” but nor did he act with malice.

This was a book written with “generous” cooperation from the Paterno family and, for the most part, it reflected their stance. He quotes someone form the Paterno inner circle calling him “the scapegoat.” He cites the “blood-in-the-water media frenzy” surrounding him. To Posnanski, why the Penn State BOT opted to fire Paterno, though clear to most and an integral part of the story, was somehow “not his story to tell.”

The Freeh Report contradicts this interpretation, pointing out clearly that Paterno knew about and followed up on the 1998 incident (impossible to believe he would not have) and that he was part of the decision-making process to not report Sandusky to the authorities in 2001. Posnanski bases his interpretation on discussions with Paterno in the aftermath. The only other media member granted access to him during these moments called him “a liar,” “a cover-up artist” and “a hubristic, indictable hypocrite.”

Posnanski ends the book with the following passage from his last meeting with Paterno, which encapsulates the tone.

So tell me something, Giuseppe, how are you going to get my whole life into one book?” Paterno asked me on our last visit.

“I have no idea,” I told him. “It’s a big life.”

“Yeah, it’s not bad,” Joe Paterno said. “Not bad at all.”

“Paterno” wields a butter knife when the story called for a much sharper instrument.

[Photo via Presswire]

Note: The Big Lead is part of the USA Today Sports Media Group. Joe Posnanski writes for Sports on Earth, another USA Today site.

 

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