This is where the introduction for any interview is supposed to go. However, if you don't know the introduction to this story by now, this isn't the right place to start looking. Long story short: guy decides to write book on iconic college sports figure; eight months later, said figure's school is embroiled in arguably the worst scandal in college sports history; guy finishes book another nine months later.
Exhausted, drained, and ready for some lighter fare, Joe Posnanski graciously took some time out of his hectic schedule to answer some questions for us.
BSD: How hard was it to essentially scrap the angle you had on Joe Paterno before the scandal, and keep writing the book all while new facts were coming to light? Following the news seemed to be difficult enough for the average fan; how difficult was it to start writing about one of the strongest legacies in sports only to have to work in one of the worst scandals in all of sports?
Posnanski: I tried not to scrap anything. All the while, long before the Grand Jury presentment and everything else, I wanted to write the story of Joe Paterno's life and get as close as I could to who he was. Obviously, when the scandal hit, and when he found out that he had cancer, and when he died...all of these things added all sorts of challenges to writing the book. But I tried throughout to stay as close as I could to the mission, to writing an honest book about Joe Paterno's life. A lot of people have asked that question: How difficult was it? Well, I can only judge by my own life - it was the hardest thing I've ever tried to do professionally. I suspect it probably will always be the hardest thing I ever do professionally.
BSD: You were critical in "Paterno" of some sports media members for rushing to judgment regarding Paterno, Penn State, and many other tangentially related topics over the past 10 months. Pretend that you had never decided to write this book - how would you have covered the story differently? What steps would you have taken to ensure quality, objective reporting that you feel weren't taken by other members of the media?
Posnanski: There are plenty of people in the media who did a good job covering this story. It was a hard story. It still is. I don't know what I would have done had I not been writing the book. I think one of the traps that is easy for any of us to fall into is to predict what we would have done in any situation.
I think my biggest issue with some of the media coverage was how many inaccurate things were written and said. This was -- and is -- a complicated story, and it was easy to misquote someone or get a timeline detail wrong or mistakenly say one name when you mean another. And it's easy to get caught up emotionally and twist a detail one or two or 10 ticks to the left or right to get the point across. And I think that sort of thing happened way too often, and then those inaccuracies or mistakes would get compounded because someone else would report the wrong detail and build off it, and then someone else would take it another step or two. I've said all along that people have every right to feel however they like about this story and Joe Paterno and my book. But they should start out with accurate details. I'm a member of the media, and I love journalism, and I admire the best of our craft. We got way too many things wrong.
BSD: When we last spoke in October, the story had an obviously different angle. Then, one short month later, everything changed. Had this scandal never happened, I think it's fair to say this book would have been a smashing success across the board. Now, however, the book has earned accolades from the Penn State community for keeping a somewhat positive spin on the life of a once-beloved man, while some outside of Happy Valley have criticized the work for a variety of reasons. What reactions did you expect when the book was published? Did you sense a sort of national division leading up to the release?
Posnanski: The book has received a much, much better reception than I expected. There have been some negative and even nasty things said about it, sure, and it seems like some have focused on that. But that part was inevitable. That was a direct carryover from the extreme nastiness before the book ever came out...mostly by the very same people. I knew that was coming.
What I wondered was if it would get a fair reading from people right away or if that would take a long time...and I have to say I think it mostly has gotten a fair reading right away. I have not focused at all on reviews -- have not read them -- but during interviews people keep reading to me some of the choice lines from some of the most savage reviews, so I will turn the tables a bit and pull out a line from Publisher's Weekly's review which just came out (and which was just sent to me today): "The author's straightforward treatment of the case might be the focus for contemporary readers, but his fair assessment of Paterno's life and illustrious career will stand the test of time." I hope and believe that's true. And I'm thrilled a reviewer could say that now, in the middle of it all.
I believe it's the best work I've ever done. The success of the book has been nice. But it's the fact that so many people relate to this book now, even with all the emotion still in the air, even with the way the narrative has been pushed one way for so long, even with so many incorrect details and unproven allegations swirling around, that has been really great.
BSD: You've arguably spent more time on this story in recent times than anyone else. And you've also seen the backlash from the scandal, and it's subsequent coverage by the media. Are there still fresh angles out there, possibly merely conjecture and rumors at this point, that you think need to come to light? Essentially, are we anywhere near the end of this messy affair?
Posnanski: I think the January trials of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz will bring new facts to light. And I think there are new developments all the time, for people who are interested in new developments. I think there are really two questions here. The first is: Does the nation still have an appetite for this story or do they think it's been pretty much wrapped up by the conviction of Jerry Sandusky and the conclusions of the Freeh Report? I don't have a good answer for that. I hear all the time that people have made up their mind and moved on to the next thing. But then, every element of this story becomes huge news, even now, and that suggests that there's still a lot of interest and a hunger to get closer to the truth. So I don't know.
The second question though is: Are there details to learn for people who ARE interested in this story? And for that the answer is an unequivocal yes. I have said this before and I'll repeat it: The Freeh Report is an important part of the conversation, but no fair-minded person could look at a report that spoke to only one of the, say, 10 major characters in this story (and seemed to discount his assertions) and say that should be the final word. I would say that no person -- no matter where they might stand on the scandal, no matter how much they might believe in the guilt of the people involved -- would want something as incomplete as the Freeh Report to define their lives.
More will emerge. There's no question in my mind about that. Tim Curley will speak, Gary Schultz will speak, they will be allowed the vigorous defense that our judicial system demands. People who loved Joe Paterno -- family, players, fans -- will continue to push ahead in an effort to give him the fair public hearing they believe he has not received. And, investigations go on, new details will come out. There will be a lot more. How much will people care about all of that? Some will care a great deal. Some won't care at all. I think it's an open question.
BSD: What's next for you? Any other sports figures you'd like to cover in-depth, or are you going to take a break after what was surely an emotionally draining experience?
Posnanski: Right now I am focused on our new Web site, Sports On Earth, which is a daily online sports magazine that we hope will feature great sportswriting every day. That's been really exciting and is getting better every day.
Whenever someone asks me what my next book will be, I always say the same thing: "Easier." I'm pretty confident that, no matter what else happens, that will be true.
A HUGE thank you to Joe Posnanski for making time for us. Buy his book, read his book, and then lend his book to a friend.
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