For those who care about sports and sports writing, the recent publication of Joe Posnanski’s book on the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was perhaps the event of the summer. Posnanski, a former Sports Illustrated columnist held by many to be the best sportswriter in the country, originally had planned to shadow Paterno during what would likely be the last of his 62 seasons as a coach, uncovering the secrets of his admirable longevity and even more admirable decency.
Instead, Posnanski found himself in State College, PA, in the fall of 2011, watching as the national debate shifted from Paterno’s place among the great sports coaches to whether he had actively covered up a series of child rapes committed by longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky. This ruined Posnanski’s original concept of writing a heartwarming Father’s Day paean to the triumph of the human spirit; it also left him as the only reporter on the inside of a transcendent story of power and corruption. No sportswriter in living memory has had such an opportunity.
The book, sad to say, landed with a wet thud. The critical consensus was that Posnanski had done little with his unique access to his subject, blowing a chance to write the definitive book on the worst scandal in the history of American sports. Few readers really cared about Paterno’s working-class Brooklyn roots, or the love of literature he’d developed at Brown University, or how various Chamber of Commerce types who had played for him felt that his hard coaching had, in retrospect, turned them into men. They wanted to know what Paterno knew about Sandusky and when, and whether his handling of the scandal was tied to lifelong patterns of behavior. Treating the scandal as one incident in a long, full life rather than something that will forever define Paterno, Posnanski hinted at answers, but never delivered them.
Left implicit in most of the reviews was the main subject of gossip among sportswriters prior to the book’s release: Of all the people who might have written this book, Joe Posnanski might have been the one least suited to it. The same gifts that put him in a position to get the story—fluency, a knack for finding uplift in unlikely places, a conciliatory spirit—also left him unable to tell it.
This was troubling, because these gifts aren’t just those of a good writer, but a good person. His work creates an easy intimacy and a sense that you’re in the hands of a decent man, which is true. (I’ve had reason to ask Posnanski for several favors over the years, and found him to be exceptionally generous.) Still, reading Paterno, it was hard not to ask a dour question: If the traits that make someone a top sportswriter simultaneously leave him unable to master a story of this importance, just what has gone wrong with sports writing?
Posnanski is an odd fit for the role of sports writing’s avatar, less because of what he is than what he isn’t. A longtime sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, he became nationally prominent in the late aughts with the publication of The Soul of Baseball, a book about his road trips with Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil, and a well-read blog that explained traditionalists to younger, more analytical fans and vice versa without condescending to either. In a news cycle increasingly dominated by shouty fools issuing witless “takes” on command, he stood out for not shouting and not being a fool.
He eventually landed at Sports Illustrated, where he was a featured columnist, a sort of counter to ESPN’s Bill Simmons. As a national voice, Posnanski did well, writing faster than anyone better, better than anyone faster, and longer than almost everyone. (Counting what he posted on his blog and published in Sports Illustrated in August 2011, as he was packing for State College, you get about 40,000 words spread over a couple dozen articles on golf, postage stamps, the relative power of statistics and narrative in sports, a novel by former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, the myth of pressure, and, mostly, baseball.) The broader platform did, though, expose some shortcuts to which he was prone.
The novelist John Gardner defined sentimentality as “the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause.” For Posnanski, this is a working method. Take as an example a typical good Posnanski piece, a 3,500-word blog post from December 2010 about the brilliant pitcher Zack Greinke. At the time there was a lot of talk about whether the morbidly lousy Kansas City Royals would trade him to a team in a bigger city, and whether Greinke, who has struggled with social anxiety disorder and depression, could handle big crowds and the expectation to win.