Let me first say that I get the creeps whenever I encounter the new journalism buzz-phrase “long-form journalism.”
Long-form -- rhymes with chloroform.
Why not just say “long,” since that seems to be what is being advertised.
To be effective, the writer needs to blend facts, details, descriptions, observations, quotes, opinions, in an interesting manner. That is, the writer needs to be able to write, and the editors need to be able to edit.
That’s long enough, right there. However, some long pieces are glorious, worth reading slowly, carefully, from beginning to end. I just read three over the weekend.
The Passion of Roger Angell. By Tom Verducci. Sports Illustrated, July 21, 2014.
Roger Angell has graced the New Yorker and his own books for the past half century with his writing about baseball (along with other elegant pieces.) On July 26, Angell will be honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., with the annual J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor given by the Baseball Writers of America. (Angell has never held a BBWA card since the New Yorker does not cover baseball on a daily basis.)
Tom Verducci, a Sports Illustrated writer and television commentator, has proven worthy of his subject, accompanying Angell to the cottages and docks and sailboats of his beloved Maine, and even to the cemetery, containing the headstones for Angell’s mother, Katharine Angell White, his step-father, E.B. White, his brother, Joe, his daughter, Callie, and Angell’s wife, Carol, whom he misses badly, and for Angell himself, the stone (1920-) lacking only a final date.
To his immense credit, Verducci captures the bittersweet outlook of a man who is 93 and has much left to say about baseball, about life, about writing:
“I used to have a terribly hard time starting, because when I wrote I didn’t do first drafts. I wrote the whole piece on typewriters and would x out and use Scotch tape. I think I began to realize that leads weren’t a big problem. You can start anywhere.”
For many decades, the best baseball writing of the year would arrive in the mail at the end of spring training -- Roger Angell’s report on spring training, often from the baseball hangout, the Pink Pony in Scottsdale, Ariz., now defunct. The first Angell of spring was a sure sign we would outlive winter, real life was resuming. His pieces could have gone on forever, as far as this reader was concerned. Amazingly, long-form journalism had not yet been invented.
Wrong Answer: In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice. By Rachel Aviv. The New Yorker. July 21, 2014.
Speaking of trends, the current infatuation with testing scores led the Atlanta school system to encourage cheating. Rachel Aviv followed one idealistic educator, feeling forced to abandon actual teaching and caring for the young, down the path to Watergate-style chicanery. Great reporting provides a guide to this tragedy.
The Trials of Graham Spanier, Penn State’s Ousted President. By Michael Sokolove. The New York Times Magazine. July 20, 2014.
The former president of Penn State allowed a seasoned magazine writer to visit him in the wreckage of the child-abuse case involving Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator with the football team. The article says Spanier was brutalized by his own father; I never knew that. Now Spanier faces legal charges that he failed to investigate the possibility that Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys within the football “program.”
There is no doubt Spanier and Joe Paterno were clueless in coping with developing hints and charges about Sandusky. (I listened in on a Paterno press conference in 2008; in retrospect, this was not the same man I had followed for decades, but Spanier could not get him to retire.)
Sokolove makes the case that the institution of Penn State was willing to chuck Spanier and Paterno into history and pay $60-million to the loan-shark-minded N.C.A.A. for the privilege of being able to make more money as a football “program.”
Note: I just discovered a piece by James Bennet in the Atlantic last December, decrying the spawn of longform-journalism. It’s really good. And not that long.
Looks like we all invented Joe Paterno and Happy Valley, turned them into an idyllic magic kingdom, to justify the seedy world of big-time college football.
There had to be one factory with a coach who got it, who walked with the philosophers in his spare time, who was plugged into the moral issues of his time.
There had to be one good place. Otherwise, what is the justification of college football?
After half a century of covering college sports, I came to think of the vast majority of big-time coaches as talented and maybe even charismatic hucksters, who were warped inside. Their job was to prepare for the next game, the next season. But morally, many of them were like moles, who dig in the earth but never see daylight.
With the Freeh report on the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State emerging on Thursday, it seems clear that Penn State never prepared this sanctified football coach for the one real tough issue of his career. He could not act on evidence there was something wrong with his buddy down the hall.
Apparently, Paterno had never even walked through a room where the great common denominators of our time – the Oprahs, the Dr. Phils, the Jerry Springers – were blaring on television about the dark side of life.
The coach we needed so badly lived underground. And when confronted with hints and clues and allegations, he was surely not the person to do anything about them.
He had a game coming up. He had a practice. He had a recruiting trip.
And so did the rest of his university, and the fans who came rolling into the mountains on Saturday, and the sportswriters who idealized the coach. They all had a game. The pressure was on. The state of Pennsylvania and the whole football-loving nation wanted to think of Happy Valley as that good place that also produced linebackers.
We had the myth. How many children’s lives were ruined by a blind system of big-time college football that fit our needs?
One response to the memorial service for Joe Paterno:
People were attracted to Penn State because of its successful, charismatic and apparently idealistic football coach? Sorry, but that makes me just a bit uneasy.
I can see going to a school for its academic rating or a specific major, or well-known teachers who can be accessed by signing up for a course, or reasonable in-state tuition, or a scholarship, or a workship program that prepares you for real life, or proximity to home, or distance from home, or a beautiful setting. Or even the reputation of a party school.
But choose a university because you might score an occasional ticket to a football game or once in four years find yourself in the presence of a JoePa? Yikes. How did a football program become a beacon for a university?
I was able to watch the memorial live, streaming on PCN.com. I loved the stories about how Paterno recruited players’ mothers in their kitchens, raving over their pasta, and I believed every word about his fierce loyalty to players. And I respect the dean who praised Paterno's support for the classics.
Paterno was way above most big-time coaches in his relationship to education, and the media reported it.
However, I could not help but react to the defensive note being spun around the many wonderful traits of Paterno, almost as if they had been coordinated by a public-relations firm. Or defense counsel.
The most outspoken comments were from Nike’s Phil Knight, who said the flaw in the Sandusky investigation “lies in the institution, not in Joe Paterno’s response.”
Paterno wore Knight’s footwear. So there’s that.
The people from the university seemed to be addressing some other audience – history? A grand jury? The politicians of the state?
It is hard for an outsider to believe that insiders in the extremely inbred society of the university and the football program did not know about Jerry Sandusky’s at-least very creepy tendencies.
Whatever Mike McQueary told him, there is no evidence that Paterno understood the implications, or did enough to follow up. For a man that powerful to turn the rumors over to authorities (whom he apparently stonewalled) was just not enough. Football players are trained to follow Coach. However, I would expect a university and the surrounding community to be a bit more skeptical.
The tributes to Paterno were very touching; he had a better grip in a long and honorable life than most big-time football coaches – which is saying what?
But people’s choosing a university in order to be in the reflected glow of a hallowed football coach should be enough to make us question the link between football and higher education, so-called higher education. Even if Coach loved the classics.
As the mourners pay respect to Joe Paterno, it becomes increasingly clear just how badly he was served in his final years.
Paterno had enough left in his final weeks to understand that he was going to be judged as a public figure who did not do enough when warned about the possibility of male rape on his watch.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
That’s what Paterno told Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. The most important person in the state of Pennsylvania lived inside a castle, behind barricades and moats formed in the name of winning a national football championship.
This is what college football is all about – win at all costs, including isolation and ignorance. Take a look at an excellent article, “How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life,” by Laura Pappano, in the New York Times education supplement of Jan. 20. It asks the question, how did it get to be like this?
But Joe Paterno’s legacy should endure. The entire Penn State community accepted Paterno’s public reputation and his millions in donations to the educational and spiritual side of Penn State. But the mob let him down by not allowing even a court jester to speak some truths to him.
How alone he was. This was more than the King Lear paranoia of a coach who will not be shoved into retirement.
In 2004, the president and the athletic director of Penn State shuffled up to Paterno’s house and suggested it was time for him to retire. Paterno gave them the bum’s rush. Of course he did. By that time, it was already too late to create a dialogue between an aging coach and anybody he respected.
He was on his own, living by his wits, against anybody who would challenge him – because in his street-smart Brooklyn way, he knew they had only one thing on their minds, and that was winning more football games than the powerhouses in Ohio and Alabama and Florida. That’s all they cared about. He was there to be No. 1. So he told them to get lost.
In his press conferences in later years, he sounded like any cranky old man shouting at the kids to keep off his lawn. On that November night after his job was taken away from him, he sounded disjointed, telling the students to go home and study but he still did not seem to understand how serious, how ugly, this all was.
His players are now suggesting he died of a broken heart. This is classic football – us against them. We don’t have access to Paterno’s medical history in recent years (when he seemed to be a magnet for players running out of bounds), but he was diagnosed for lung cancer days after being publicly caught up in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Was he well served by his family, or did they all try to preserve his position against the hordes who resented every rare loss? Was he well served by his university, which allowed him to retreat deeper into the castle?
Above all, they wanted Penn State to be No. 1. And in the end, he became the Wizard of Oz, behind the trappings.
I’d rather remember the vital, earthy, skeptical, educated guy with the Brooklyn rasp, who built a good thing in the Nittany Valley – until the masses did him no favors by making him king.
Instead of protesting the selection of Bill O’Brien to coach Penn State football, the diehards ought to look at it this way:
There could have been no football games in so-called Happy Valley next autumn – that is to say, the major activity of that entire university could have been cancelled.
Some Penn State football boosters and former players are said to be unhappy with the choice of O’Brien in the wake of the ghastly sexual abuse scandal emanating from the core of the football program.
This is a good time to think about the absurd scale of values of college football, while Louisiana State University and Alabama are meeting for the national championship in New Orleans on Monday night.
Penn State is part of that feeder system of the Bowl Championship Series. The belief that Penn State should be a contender in any given season is a direct cause of the institutional blindness that sheltered an alleged abuser of boys, a trusted former assistant coach named Jerry Sandusky.
Nobody wanted to know, including the long-time coach and icon, Joe Paterno, whose ideals and generosity were used to rationalize more corrupt programs at other schools.
Hansen Alexander, a lawyer and writer in New York, makes the case that the lying and payoffs at schools like Ohio State and Miami were even more institutional than the sexual scandal that nobody at Penn State wanted to uncover.
Writers like Joe Nocera and Dave Zirin have pointed out the hypocrisies and dishonesties of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Bowl Championship Series and individual schools.
Over the years, I have asked college presidents to explain the link between football and education. The best they can do is gush about getting hordes of people on their campus in the fall. Apparently, when the recruits win a football game, boosters can be cajoled into giving money for laboratories. What a pathetic bargain that is.
Penn State is now being treated as a rogue institution that could not respond to danger signs from within. Of course, life and education must go on, for the sake of the students and the community.
In the wake of scandal, the new administration of Penn State could have apologized to rival schools and television networks and other enablers of this system, and just cancelled all games. Instead, the administrators went out and found a coach with excellent references and they seem committed to competing for future B.C.S. titles.
I would say Penn State fans ought to stop yapping about the new coach. The whole sordid system got off easy.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.