One subplot to the tragic scandal at Penn State is how the aftermath and the staining of Joe Paterno's legacy will impact Joe Posnanski's biography on the life of the coach. Posnanski has been working on the definitive Paterno biography (aptly titled Paterno) he dubbed "the most amazing football story ever told."
Except in the past year, and last month especially, that amazing football story took a drastic left turn and jumped off a cliff.
The Joe Paterno that Joe Posnanski met with and wrote about is clearly not the same Joe Paterno we see now in the public eye. Posnanski had incredbile inside access into the Paterno family and even spent time with the coach in the last days of his life. Before that fateful day when the indictments at Penn State were first revealed to the public, that biography of Joe Paterno would have surely been a masterpiece on one of the great legends in all of sports. Posnanski is a brilliant writer and Joe Paterno, with his pristine image bucking the trend of corruption and identity as Penn State University was a great story to tell.
But with the release of the Freeh Report, it's impossible to tell that same story… except the story has already been written.
Posnanski's biography on Paterno has to be largely finished a month away from its release. In hindsight, perhaps it was a mistake to move the publishing date up almost a full year for an August 21 release in order to give proper perspective to the incredible shift in what Joe Paterno's legacy will ultimately be. Ed Sherman posted a video preview of the book by Posnanski, done before the Freeh Report, that showed Paterno in a complex, yet positive light. The video has since been taken down (foreshadowing reception to the book itself?) but was saved by Deadspin. Below is a partial transcript of some of Posnanski's thoughts on Paterno:
"Joe has obviously been very much in the news the last few months of his life and what I hope to do is write the truth, I hope to get somewhere close to the truth, I think a lot of people have feelings about Joe Paterno, what he did, what he was about. What I hope to do is write the most complete, thorough, but really more than anything most truthful account of who Joe Paterno was, what his life was about."
"He was a fascinating, deep, not flawless, but generally decent person who tried to do a lot in his life."
"The one thing that Joe Paterno stood for was making an impact, an impact on people's lives, an impact on a community, on a college. That's what's most significant about him… the questions people have about Joe Paterno, what he did or didn't do, you weigh that against the impact that he made and hopefully people read the book and have a real view of that life."
Those quotes about making an impact on people's lives will forever be juxtaposed with the same individual who "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade" according to the Freeh Report. That's no footnote.
Adding to the intrigue and uncertainty surrounding the book, Sports Illustrated has reportedly rejected running an excerpt from the book. Posnanski worked for SI until this year before leaving for a new project with USA Today. SI's Jon Wertheim called the book potentially "the literary version of the Matt Millen fiasco."
Whether it be horrible luck, horrible timing, or both… it's an impossible position for Posnanski and the publishers. What's the right decision? Go ahead and publish the book with a slight nod to the untold story? Quickly add an edit and a postscript while keeping the majority of Paterno's glistening story in tact? Forget "the most amazing football story ever told" and start over from scratch? I can't say there's a precise right answer, but regardless of what the final product is, it'll be a best-seller with this story dominating sports and crossing over into the mainstream for the last year.
While sales are assured, Posnanski is putting a great deal on the line with this Joe Paterno biography. If the monstrous acts of covering up child abuse are ignored or glossed over in favor of this ideal of a champion of both football and life, it could have serious repercussions for Posnanski moving forward. If Posnanski can somehow effectively merge the Paterno he studied and wrote about with what we know now, it'll be a masterstroke of the highest order.
Posnanski's plight is a very small part of the Penn State story, and yet it's symbolic of the larger issues at hand. What happens when the definitive story about a man isn't really the definitive story? What happens when everything that occurs in the dark is brought to light? What happens when our greatest ideals become our worst fears? What happens when the perfect real-life story becomes fiction?