For a cringe-inducing sports podcast experience without peer, it’s hard to beat Jonah Keri’s Nov. 3 Grantland Network pod with Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski, who, prior to sitting down for this lengthy interview, had apparently spent the last several months ensconced in State College, Pa., researching a biography of Joe Paterno.
Subscribe to the Grantland Network via iTunes, listen to the first 18 minutes of this interview, then note its issue date: Nov. 3. It was recorded/aired roughly 48 hours before the college football world was rendered slack-jawed and the Fiefdom of Joe utterly torn asunder by revelations that Paterno’s longtime defensive assistant had, before retiring 12 years ago at age 55, allegedly been molesting young boys under the cover of a philanthropic foundation he administered — one that shared facilities with and operated with the imprimatur of JoePa’s storied football program in State College.
By now the details of this story and these allegations are widely known. However, listening to Posnanski on Nov. 3 is nothing short of surreal: One would never have gathered the slightest inkling that any of this was about to come down. Set beside the events of more recent days, the contrasts and ironies of this interview are myriad, stunning and puzzling.
No one can forecast the future, of course. On Nov. 3, 2011, the story had not yet been broken nationally.
Still, one has to wonder what sort of research Posnanski was doing all that time in State College. These rumors had been circulating in the local press since April 2011, as we’ve since learned, and it seems strange that a writer of Posnanski’s professional standing could immerse himself in Penn State culture and know absolutely nothing about it.
Further questions come thick and fast.
Is this merely an intersection of art and commerce? To be sure, the writer of this sort of book has a stake in building up the subject, not tearing him down. That’s part of the reason he did the interview with Keri, to promote the book. There’s nothing inherently wrong with sports biographies, or promoting them, but it strains credulity that Posnanski could have been researching one while unwittingly sitting atop one of the biggest powder kegs in American sports history.
Forget Paterno. What did the writer know and when did he know it?
Posnanski isn’t saying, not directly. He posted on his SI blog Nov. 8, with the clear implication that he will not be elaborating further. This story “needs time”, he wrote. Two days later, on Nov. 10, he apparently spoke to a Penn State class called “Joe Paterno: Communications and the Media,” during which he had this to say. [This tweet and other’s like them have been scrubbed; here’s a lesson for you journo students out there: always link and reproduce the tweet in the body of your story, for posterity].
For his part, Posnanski is sorta damned if he did know and damned if he didn’t. If he knew anything about what was going down and sat on it — in order to secure continued access to and cooperation from Paterno and Penn State; in order to protect his investment in the book project — it’s not unreasonable to question his ethics.
If he didn’t have a clue, it’s not unreasonable to question his research methodology and motivation.
Journalists don’t like to spell this out, but motivation drives research. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that an uncritical, hagiographic book on Joe Paterno would never delve deeply or critically enough into the subject to produce revelations like those we’ve seen in the last two weeks.
Some in the Penn State community, some in the local media clearly knew what was going down. Grand Juries aren’t called out of thin air (its report was what busted this story wide open on Nov. 5). Prior to Nov. 5, all but a few locals surely treated this as a highly classified state secret, especially when an SI reporter was in their midst.
Posnanski’s situation would be a lot less complicated if he admitted that it was never his intention to write anything but a puff-piece biography on Paterno. That sort of motivation would explain his never having conducted enough real research to learn of this mess ahead of Nov. 5, 2011. He might simply maintain that he took on this project because he clearly admired Paterno and everything he’d built at Penn State (you can hear this esteem coating everything Posnanski said about the coach, the program, State College and PSU during his pod chat with Keri) and because Paterno would soon be passing Eddie Robinson for the all-time record in Division I college football victories, something that indeed did take place on Oct. 29, 2011 vs. Illinois.
From a sentimental, hagiographic and pecuniary standpoint, this is just the sort of formula around which obsequious sports biographies are routinely written, published and sold. (No one could have dreamed that record-setting victory would be Paterno’s last game as a Penn State employee.)
But that’s not what Posnanski is saying.
In his temporary farewell blog item, Posnanski does not take that tack. He appears determined to portray Paterno as a complicated figure of longstanding — as someone whom people have always simultaneously revered and despised. It was this complicated personality that attracted him, Posnanski writes.
Well, complicated figures have detractors. If Posnanski was motivated by the complicated nature of Joe Paterno’s story, it’s hard to imagine during his long sojourn in State College he didn’t sit down and chat at some point with Mark Madden, the Beaver County Times columnist who has been following this story all along, or simply read Madden’s April 3, 2011 column online. That’s all it would have taken not to have been blindsided by the Nov. 5 Grand Jury report.
For a guy who could be damned either way, there’s a strong likelihood that Posnanski will come out of this smelling like a rose. The terminus of this story is nowhere in sight, but Posnanski will surely be weighing in, eventually, with a book — a very different sort of book than he’d planned, one that stands to be far more prurient, far better promoted, far better read, and far more lucrative than the fawning bit of treacle he was promoting on Jonah Keri’s podcast Nov. 3.
I don’t know what that is, but it ain’t justice.