Flag on the play

Why a great sportswriter blew the story of a lifetime; the undoing of Joe Paterno
November 1, 2012

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.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

Posnanski drew on his years covering Greinke for the Star to argue that the one place the pitcher felt truly comfortable was the pitcher’s mound, and that crowds and the press didn’t bother him at all. It was a sensitive, smart, and well-reported piece; it was also structured around a conceit comparing Greinke to Chauncey, the idiot hero of Hal Ashby’s 1979 film Being There.

The effect Posnanski is after, and the one he gets if you’re not reading attentively, is to present Greinke as a very recognizable type, who exposes the grasping absurdity of everything around him just by staying true to his own narrow genius. The problem, though, is that Greinke isn’t some fictionalized idiot savant, but a talented player dealing with an illness he shares with millions of other Americans. Rather than fully work through the implications of that, Posnanski sentimentalizes Greinke, which is kinder than depicting him as a coward, but hardly more accurate.

Taking in a lot of Posnanski’s writing at once, you see this disjuncture between cause and effect recur so often that it comes to seem like a trick. The trick is predicated on the seemingly unconventional take (Zack Greinke is in fact better suited for the pressures of baseball than anyone else!), which makes it especially galling when that take is pure vanilla. One of the central mysteries of Joe Paterno’s life, for example, was why he kept coaching for at least a decade after he should have retired.

“His hearing went,” Posnanski writes in Paterno. “His mobility went. His energy went. But his mind stayed sharp, his memory too, and he kept on going even when his age had become a national punch line. He coached right up to the scandal that led to his firing and the cancer that led to his death.

“Why did he keep coaching? There are no shortage of theories. Ego? A loss of perspective? Or was it simply that he was human? ‘Joe refused to admit he was getting old,’ one friend said. ‘Isn’t that the most human thing of all?’”

One is tempted to answer, “Well, no, not really.” Only in fields that offer the illusion of youth or the reality of power—sports, entertainment, politics—is it normal to reach a Paternoesque denial of the reality of age. In the mentions of ego and loss of perspective Posnanski tacitly admits this, but when it comes to the part where he ought to be offering some actual insight, there is only something near a copout, one reminiscent of the infamous “secret” at the heart of Simmons’s The Book of Basketball. (“The secret of basketball,” Isiah Thomas tells him, “is that it’s not about basketball.”)

This sort of flaw mars Paterno, which brims with telling details that simply don’t align with its central argument that Paterno was a good man who, in an uncharacteristic lapse, failed to see what was right before him. Many reviewers rightly fixed on a story about the coach calling his daughter a thief and then storming out of a restaurant after she’d had the nerve to pick a cucumber off her sister’s plate. As with Greinke, Posnanski shies away from the more difficult conclusions of his own reporting and turns to wistful, easily understood truisms. Polemic can work this way. Narrative can’t.

Of course, Posnanski isn’t the only sportswriter who tends toward sentimentality and sometimes allows platitudes about the human spirit to stand in for hard explanations of difficult concepts. Between the speed of the news cycle and the demand that star columnists produce a volume of copy that often makes serious reporting or reflection impossible, taking those shortcuts is basically the only way to get the work done. This isn’t new—a hundred years ago, sportswriters worked under similar deadline pressures and were just as apt to express opinions on things they knew nothing about. What’s changed is the sheer amount of writing demanded in an age when there are no hard physical limits on word counts. The soup may sometimes be thin, but the chefs will make up for it in volume.

Techniques that work for day-to-day sports coverage, though, can fail miserably when used to handle a serious, real-world news story. There is a reason why the hardest news in sports—stories of concussions, doping scandals, the involvement of teams in the transnational workings of dirty capital—not only isn’t broken by star columnists, but is rarely seriously addressed by them. Those stories require quiet concentration, an ability to ignore the great raving noise machine and focus on small details and, most of all, time—the one thing a star never has. That’s a shame for anyone who cares about sports, and about journalism.

The failure of one of America’s finest sportswriters to do anything really meaningful with unique access to the main players in the biggest sports story of his generation would ideally prompt changes. Editors might grant their better stylists more time to do careful work. Columnists might write less often but more thoroughly, trusting their readers to come up with their own opinions on the latest in the infinite series of vital debates over postseason awards and Halls of Fame. The public might even become more demanding.

While any of that might yet happen, I’d doubt it. Posnanski’s book was published on August 21. Within a few days he ran a 5,000-word piece on a baseball statistic, two 2,000-word pieces on baseball’s Hall of Fame, and another on the heartwarming story of how his iPad was lost (“it was one of those moments—and there are many throughout childhood, into college, into early adulthood, into mid-life, on and on—when the world becomes just a little bit darker place”) and then returned to him. His new website Sports on Earth, a rival to Simmons’s Grantland, also went live. Over the next few weeks its pages filled with content. A lot of it was good. Most of the writers sounded a little bit like Posnanski.

Tim Marchman , a sportswriter, will be a 2012 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan.