One thing’s for sure with the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal-saga, which re-emerged to dominate headlines this week upon release of Louis Freeh’s damning report: I’m glad Jerome Carboni didn’t live to see it. If the father of my college housemate, Dennis Carboni, had not passed away a few years ago, this Paterno debacle would surely have killed him.
The Carbonis were a hardcore football family and though it hailed from Meriden, Conn., hundreds of miles from Happy Valley, Mr. Carboni worshipped Joe Paterno and Penn State football. Dennis hinted to me that it might have had something to do with a shared Italian-American heritage, but let’s be honest: There was a lot for a 70something football fan to admire in the way Paterno conducted his affairs at Penn State. The perceived emphasis on academics. The pointedly unflashy blue-and-white uniforms. The long tenure. The absence of scandal.
Joe Posnanski is 50something, but he was clearly similarly drawn to this Paterno story-myth. Starting in early 2011, Posnanski, then a Sports Illustrated baseball writer, went so far as to secure access to Paterno and his family, relocate to State College, Pa., and set about researching a biography. The idea, as detailed in his own book proposal, was to “tell the remarkable story about a man who could have been anything but decided that the best way he could help change America was one college football player at a time.”
Like Jerome Carboni, Joe Posnanski was a true believer.
The contents of this eagerly awaited book — scheduled for release in August — will be all the more anticipated for the author’s pre-publication seclusion. Posnanski has said or written next to nothing about the project since going underground shortly after the scandal broke in November 2011, other than to acknowledge the obvious: The tenor of said book has changed dramatically. He’s also been under the gun; Simon and Schuster moved up publication of the book some 10 months to cash in on the salacious topicality of the subject. (Since leaving SI to write it, Posnanski has found time to partner with Major League Baseball on a web venture that involves USA Today, apparently).
I have nothing against Joe Posnanski, but I’ve read pretty much everything I can find online about his peculiar role in this ongoing drama (which, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, certainly qualifies as tragic), and nowhere does Posnanski offer, nor does any journalist care to ask, the nagging question here: What did Joe know and when did he know it?
I wrote about this in November 2011. With every passing day, it gets harder to believe that a professional biographer was ensconced in State College doing research for months ahead of November 2011, and never got any wind of the allegations against Sandusky. People in the Penn State community knew what was going down. Janitors. Administrators. Journalists. Grand juries, the likes of which leveled the charges against Jerry Sandusky back in November, don’t get called or conducted in a vacuum. Word gets around. Consider all of Sandusky’s alleged victims across the community… You’re telling me they were all so cowed by Paterno, so deludedly intent on avoiding damage to the school’s football “brand”, that no one would have taken Posnanski aside and said, “You should read what this guy Mark Madden’s been writing in the Beaver County Times”? A conversation like this one and a single Google search would have revealed to Posnanski this kernel.
Maybe these sources were indeed too intimidated to have that conversation with an SI reporter on book leave. Freeh’s report indicates that janitors in the locker rooms witnessed many damning things but never reported them, so fearful they were for their jobs. That’s logical, that Paterno would wield enough power to deter a janitor from reporting a child rape in a Penn State locker-room shower. And, as we’ve read in Freeh’s report, Paterno did know about what had happened and moved concertedly with administrators to keep it hidden.
It’s complicated, but Posnanski is damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. If he knew something and sat on it, yikes… If he didn’t know anything, what sort of research was he doing all through 2011? A lot of sitting around the kitchen table with Joe Paterno, apparently.
The latter is certainly less damning on the ethical scale. There’s no moral lapse in setting out to write a sports hagiography; they are written all too frequently. But if he was truly caught unawares, the surface nature of Posnanski’s research becomes embarrassingly clear when we consider the massive powder keg he failed to notice.