Sooner or later some of the big boys were bound to take chainsaws to former Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski. It was inevitable.
People here for the most part, were expecting the worse from Posnanski, where his Joe Paterno bio was concerned. Because we know him so well. No way would kind-hearted Joe lay the pipe to the fallen Penn State football coach after sucking up to him to get a reported $750,000 book deal and practically living with Paterno’s family for however many months.
Posnanski’s book deal that had the words “puff piece” written all over it.
And anybody familiar with Posnanski’s body of work understood why Paterno opened up his home and life to the former Star scribe.
Nobody delivers a better sports writing blowjob than Posnanski. Nobody.
Please don’t take that the wrong way – it’s not a shot – it’s just what Joe does.
And he does it well.
However in the case of the Paterno / Sandusky child sex coverup scandal, the entire free world wanted nothing more (and nothing less) than for Posnanski burn Paterno’s legacy at the journalistic stake.
But would he, could he?
The Star freelance reviewer didn’t lay a glove on him. Obviously. The New York Times took a few shots at Posnanski but played the review mostly straight down the middle.
Which brings us to today’s Wall Street Journal review by Tim Marchman.
“Within a few days last fall, Joe Paterno, who had coached football at Pennsylvania State University for 62 years, lost his reputation and his job and then learned that he was dying,” Marchman begins. “Joe Posnanski was there. Then a writer for Sports Illustrated, Mr. Posnanski had been in Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley for months working on a book about the 84-year-old, for which he had been given unique access to the man, his family and his archives. At worst his biography would be the sort of life-lessons-from-the-coach book that well-known sportswriters seem compelled to write at some point; at best it would be a defining work, the perfect meeting of a legendary subject and a writer admired for celebrating what is good and right about American sport.”
Confirmation by Marchman that Posnanski’s a known softie.
“At best, Paterno was a sort of stuffed mascot, monstrously indifferent to everything around him,” Marchman writes. “At worst, he orchestrated an active conspiracy to protect Mr. Sandusky. Probably the truth is closer to the former, as Mr. Posnanski argues, but nothing he offers will change anyone’s mind.”
In other words, Posnanski missed his chance to write something definitive.
“It’s odd, given all the stories that Mr. Posnanski tells, how much of the myth he seems to believe,” Marchman writes. “He repeatedly invokes Paterno’s love for the ‘Aeneid’ as a sign of how cultured he was, when most big-city Catholics of his age and aspirations would have known a bit of Virgil. More to the point, the author buys Paterno’s comparison of himself to Aeneas, drawing a causal line between Paterno’s success and the rise of Penn State as an institution. In fact, the university’s rise had to do with enormous Cold War-era military spending. The school didn’t build a nuclear reactor in 1955 because of Joe Paterno. Today the program he built brings in tens of millions of dollars per year; the institution has an annual budget of more than $4 billion. Giving Paterno credit for building the school is like crediting legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach for Boston.”
Clearly a shot at Posnanski’s naivete.
“Mr. Posnanski’s belief comes through most in certain asides, as when he describes students standing quietly around the campus statue of Paterno on the night he was fired,” Marchman writes. ” ‘This silence,” he writes, “weighed down the air, made it heavy and stifling, the quiet you might feel at the Vietnam Memorial.’ In such moments, Mr. Posnanski seems trapped not just by the myth but by his desire not to be like the meat-faced pundits who now compete with one another to see who can be most indignant over Paterno’s failures—just as avidly as they once competed to see who could do most to build the myth of Saint Joe in the first place. It’s a laudable instinct on the author’s part but leads him to see gray where there is only black.”
Put another way, Posnanski missed his chance.
If it’s any comfort to Posnanski – and I’m certain it won’t be – truth be known, Marchman went easy on him.
The Atlantic‘s Allan Barra mopped up the journalistic floor with Our Joe.
” ‘This book,’ writes Joe Posnanski in the introduction to his already controversial biography, Paterno, ‘is not a defense of Paterno,’ ” Barra begins. “Yes, it is, and relentlessly.”
“As a biography, Paterno is spotty at best,” Barra continues. “Some of the writing is flaccid and marred by bad poetry”
It gets worse.
“One problem is that Posnanski does not know college football, or at least he doesn’t know much about it before this century,” Barra adds. “His book is littered with statements about the game that simply are not true.”
Posnanski wrote an effusive obit ode to Quisenberry that many – Greg Hall being one – felt was way over the top given that Posnanski had so very few dealings or history with Quiz.
But that’s what Posnanski did and does – pour out his heart – regardless the occasion.
As for Posnanski’s eagerly anticipated handling of Paterno’s role in the Sandusky scandal, “It’s not enough to say that Posnanski does not do well relating the facts of the Sandusky case and Paterno’s role in it,” Barra writes. “The truth is that he doesn’t really try…This is the crux of the matter. Time and again, Posnanski writes as if it was his intention to make clear issues cloudy.”
Worse yet, “Excuses for Paterno’s behavior are littered throughout the text…” Barra adds
. “For readers capable of assessing the facts without the spin that Posnanski tries to put on them, a disturbing portrait of Paterno—at least the Paterno of his later years—emerges in Paterno.”
Barra hammers Posnanski over and again – almost to the point where the Atlantic‘s book review almost becomes more of an author hit piece.
It’s a good thing Posnanski got nearly a million bucks to choke this baby out because from this point forward it’s more likely that he’ll be better known as a kind hearted butt kisser with a really good way with words, than a serious sports scribe.
Hey, but everybody deserves a second chance, right?