Joe Paterno Biography Defends Former Penn State Coach’s (In)Actions In Sex Abuse Scandal


For the last few weeks there’s been rumors that Joe Posnanski’s much discussed biography of Joe Paterno, which is published Tuesday, would contain a defense of the coach’s actions – or lack thereof – in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. As it turns out, Paterno – that’s it, the entire title – does indeed try hard to mitigate if not actually exonerate him.

Posnanski gets defensive early when he writes in his overture, “I’m aware that opinions have calcified so that many people have grown deaf to other viewpoints; with such horrible crimes being committed and alleged, it could not be any other way. But I have tried to be guided by the words in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Oxbow Incident: ‘We desire justice.’ And justice has never been obtained in haste and strong feeling.”

First, I’m wondering by what Posnanski means by “alleged” crimes; certainly he could not be implying that the 45 guilty counts against Sandusky are somehow unfair, so he must be implying that a rush to judgment has somehow victimized Paterno.

Exactly what other “viewpoints” have people grown deaf to? Well, I supposed he means those of Joe’s son, Scott, who conducted his own investigation and “came away convinced that the only thing Joe knew about Sandusky’s alleged crimes – or remembered knowing – was the vague conversation he had with Mike McQueary.”

Here are two themes that Posnanski returns to often, the first being that Paterno’s memory was failing him when he finally came to discuss the matter with the grand jury in the winter of 2011. But was Paterno also supposed to be fuzzy-headed when rumors about Sandusky first surfaced in 1998 or in 2001 when McQueary came to Paterno and told him he had seen Sandusky appear to be having sex with a young boy in the Penn State showers?

Posnanski’s second theme – and this is suggested several times throughout the book – is that McQueary’s description of what he saw or thought he saw was so “vague” that Paterno could not have been expected to understand it.

The notion that Joe Paterno had lived such a sheltered life that he could not understand what McQueary was telling him is preposterous. And even if for some reason he couldn’t understand McQueary he certainly knew that McQueary was very upset. If, as Posnanski puts it, McQueary had described what he saw “in ill-defined terms,” surely he should have asked him to be more specific?

And if, as Posnanski says, Paterno “concluded it [what McQueary saw] was of a sexual nature” and it involved Sandusky and a boy and knew that McQueary was distressed over what he had seen what other conclusion could Paterno have possibly come to?

Again and again, Posnanski nudge’s us towards accepting the Paterno family’s version of events. For instance, in the statement they released to the press, Paterno says “I understand that people are upset and angry, but let’s be fair and let the legal process unfold … Sue [Mrs. Paterno] and I have devoted our lives to helping young people reach their potential. The fact that someone we thought we knew might have harmed young people to this extent is deeply troubling. If this is true, we were all fooled along with scores of professionals trained in such things …”

But letting the legal process unfold is exactly what Paterno did not do when he chose to not inform the police or make sure they were informed. And this stuff about “We were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things” — and who exactly might they be? Sounds like a backhanded way of saying “Hey, if he fooled everybody else, what do you want from me?”

Which, of course, is not even the point. Nobody asked Joe Paterno to make a judgment on Jerry Sandusky. Clearly what he should have done was turn it over to the law and let the professionals decide.

Late in the book, Posnanski lets Paterno take what amounts to his moral stand. The authors says Paterno asked him “What do you think of all this?” The reply: “I told him that I thought he should have done more when he was told Jerry Sandusky was showering with a boy.” Paterno nodded and said, “I wish I had done more.”

It’s hard to say which is the greater moral evasion: Paterno’s statement or Posnanski’s.