American Culture

Heroes, villains, victims and pawns: looking back at the Joe Paterno legacy

Joe Paterno is dead. Lots has been written and more will be added to the pile in the coming days and weeks. So let me add my two cents while the thoughts are fresh in my mind.

Had the last few months not happened we’d now be anointing JoePa for sainthood. As you’ve been told so many times before, and are now hearing all over again, he was all that was good and true in collegiate athletics, a man who did things the right way, etc. The thing is, that’s a woefully simplistic commentary on Paterno and how he did business. Also, the last few months did happen. So we now find ourselves needing to address Paterno’s legacy in two parts. Let’s do the ugly bit first.

1: Paterno and the Sandusky Scandal

There is no pretending it didn’t happen. There is no excusing Paterno’s failure to make an end of it. And in my book, there is no forgiving it. Paterno, for whatever reason, abetted the actions of a serial pedophile and rapist. These are the facts of the matter.

That said, we’re dealing with human behaviors here, which means unimaginable complexity. In a comment on Brian’s post the other day, my friend and colleague Marti Smith offered some thoughts toward perhaps explaining why Paterno didn’t do anything and everything necessary to end Jerry Sandusky’s victimization of children. Her remarks were, I think, insightful and helpful, and it’s always important to understand that explaining and excusing are different things. Nobody here is excusing (except the occasional dimwit commenter or PSU alum).

Paterno’s own remarks, toward the end, illustrate the conflict he must have felt. On the one hand, what he was being told was no doubt unspeakable for a man of his generation and upbringing. On the other, men of his generation and upbringing were organizational men, and one behaved according to the rules of the system when it was transgressed. This would have been a basic assumption for Paterno, I imagine.

When that system failed, I imagine he might have reacted as I would if, sometime this afternoon, the law of gravity were to suddenly stop working. This doesn’t make it okay, though. I’d be obliged to improvise, grabbing something and hanging on, lest I float into space. And when the system failed in the Sandusky affair, Paterno was likewise obliged to improvise. He had all the power one would have ever needed.

His failure to do so resulted in what I believe is probably the second greatest fall from grace in the history of American sports culture (behind OJ – and we might well argue that Paterno’s crash was the worse of the two). He paid for his crime with his reputation and his death last night assures that he will have no chance to repair it.

2: The Saint in the Swamp: Joe Paterno and College Football

Joe Paterno won more games than any coach in college football history. And for all those decades of victorious Saturday afternoons and national titles (and should-have-been national titles) there was never even the slightest whiff of impropriety. Well, mostly. He recruited clean and brooked very little nonsense from his players (up until some off-field issues in recent years, anyhow). By the standards of big-money intercollegiate athletics Joe Paterno was Mother Teresa.

The problem with that, and accordingly the problem I have with attempts to canonize any college athletics figure, is that the system itself is corrupt to the core. I can spend quite a bit of time delineating a long list of specific indictments, but in the end it all boils down to one simple fact: revenue-generating university sports are, in every way, the antithesis of what a university should be. Universities are about cultivating minds and spirits in ways that enrich the society, that advance the store of human knowledge, that exalt the potential of the intellect to accelerate the evolution of the species.

University sports, though, breed an apartness between the star athlete and the mere student, insisting that intellectual genius bow down to the primacy of the jock. Said jock may be a genuine scholar-athlete but is in too many cases a challenge that the athletic department has to sneak through the side corridors and and back alleys of NCAA eligibility requirements. Big-money sports add literally nothing to the legitimate mission of a university and ethically they have as much place on campus as a Provost-administered prostitution ring.

None of this is terribly easy for me to think about because I love sports. I lament the state of my Wake Forest basketball team and cautiously hope that things are on the way up for my Buff football team. I watch March Madness with as much excitement as the next guy and bitch to no end about the charade that is the BCS. All three of the universities that have awarded me degrees are in major conferences (ACC, Big 12, Pac 12) and two more where I have served as a professor play D-1 in some sports. So there’s a part of me that feels like a hypocrite, and that’s a feeling I don’t care for.

But at least I recognize my inconsistencies. I’ll always remember a letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register one Sunday in the late ’80s. I was an MA student at Iowa State and the Big Peach was a ritual during my two years there. The University of Iowa had, as I recall, brought in a new president and said president was proposing some big, if not radical reforms to its athletic programs, all aimed at better integrating its NCAA sports into a proper understanding of the purpose of a university.

Reaction was swift and predictable. One Hawkeye fan wrote something to the effect of “if we aren’t careful we might end up like Northwestern.” Yes. The gods forbid that Iowa City turn out to be like those yutzes up in Evanston, who are, you know, one of America’s premier academic institutions. I do not recall any subsequent letters to the editor calling that writer out for being an anti-intellectual jock sniffer, which only added to my disappointment.

That, friends, is the context in which all eulogies for the late Coach Paterno exist. The Sandusky scandal notwithstanding for a moment, perhaps the thing that can be said for JoePa is that he was the best a profoundly corrupt system can possibly hope for. This is not mild praise, mind you, because corrupt systems corrupt those that exist within them. Still, given what I said above, it’s also like being acclaimed as the most compassionate pimp in the entire slum.

Of course, all the comment on the life and times of Joe Paterno emerge from another context, and this one is equally important. Here in America, Hollywood has crafted four boxes into which all human beings can be neatly dumped: heroes, villains, victims and pawns. You’re great, you’re evil, you’re an unfortunate plot hook or you really, honestly, do not matter. We are not comfortable with figures who cross these boundaries. Take another great, but flawed college coaching icon, Bob Knight. He is unquestionably one of the greatest basketball minds in NCAA history. He is also, unquestionably, one of the biggest bullies and most arrogant douchebags in NCAA history. Is he a genius or is he an asshole? Well, yes. Yes he is.

In the Paterno movie Jerry Sandusky is clearly a villain. For a lot of people, so are the members of the Board of Trustees. The kids Sandusky raped – victims. The university’s faculty? Its world-renowned scholars? The students who were back in the dorms studying instead out destroying things as the story unfolded? Pawns. If you’re nodding and agreeing with me, you’re one, too.

What we’ll be seeing as the mourning period for Paterno unfolds is less about a clear-minded assessment of the facts and more about crafting a narrative. Think of it as hundreds and thousands of people subconsciously collaborating on a Hollywood script for a blockbuster about the coach’s life. In order to sell it to the studio, though, we have to make sure it speaks to the deep psychological tropes by which the masses make meaning out of life. In other words, this isn’t an investigation, it’s a ritual. The audience won’t be comfortable putting a man they felt so positively about for so many decades, the grandfatherly icon meeting with students on his lawn, in the villain box. The pawn box is right out. Which leaves us with hero box and the victim box. As you read what people have to say today and in the coming days, think about this.

In the end, it’s nearly impossible to be a saint in a swamp. Too many Americans seek to iconize those who come closest, but others of us have a better solution: drain the goddamned swamp.

4 replies »

  1. I’ve followed this story with great interest. I think Paterno’s approach to what he knew Jerry Sandusky had done, and his inaction, were completely predictable. Sports culture tends to inculcate fierce and unyielding loyalty to the team as the first and most important value. It’s not just Paterno’s failure to follow up on the Sandusky matter. There have been reports out of Happy Valley about Paterno’s penchant for punishing players who committed misdemeanors, or perhaps even felonies, by punishing them or the whole team. For instance, there was one report of player misconduct that could have resulted in fairly serious charges. Paterno allegedly “took care of it” by having the whole team clean up the stadium a few times following games.

    The team comes first. And it’s not society as a whole that should impose sanctions, but the team. Or the coach, as the case may be. At least, it seems it was this way at Penn State.

    Another fascinating aspect of this story is the columnists and their insistence (by many) that Penn State’s academic reputation was built by football and, of course, Joe Paterno. I’d have to do a lot more research to know if this is true or not, but I highly doubt it. My own alma mater had a medium good reputation in the 50s, but built itself into a public Ivy during the 60s when its football team was perennially ranked in the bottom 10. If football success builds academic reputation, why is it that Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, et. al. aren’t ranked among the nation’s elite public universities? Or even close, for that matter?

    And what of Penn State’s academic reputation? Once again, if you’ve read many of the columnists, you’d think that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, and Cambridge, combined into one institution, could not possibly match the academic excellence that is Penn State. Does Penn State get a lot of research dollars? Yep. It’s huge, and it has departments that tend to bring in research dollars. Does it attract America’s best and brightest students? Or even the better and brighter? There are some of those there, of course, but the average Penn State student seems to be a bit above average, which isn’t a bad thing, at all. Read the media opinions, though, and you’d think just going to Penn State pretty much makes you a being of pure light in the rarefied Happy Valley air.

    An exaggeration? OK. Yeah. But not by a whole lot. Honestly, I’ve read paeans to Penn State in which people talk about the special quality of light and air there.

    So, somehow and for some people, football, or maybe just the cult of Joe Paterno, has become the be-all and end-all of what a university should be. Football success has been closely linked to academic prowess. And it’s absurd. The US is packed with some wonderful universities, admired around the world, that are lousy in football. Or have no big-time football team. In fact, go through the AP top 25 in any given year, and you’ll find a dearth of schools that are both great in football and admired for their academics. Oh, there are a few that are both. Michigan most years. Stanford this year. Cal some years. UNC and Virginia on occasion. It happens. But I’ll bet if you ran the numbers, you’d find a negative relationship between football success and academic reputation.

    So, I guess I’m agreeing with you, Sam. I’m also a college sports fan, but I have few illusions about the effect of big-time sports on our universities. I think it’s a net loss for them and for the country. Fun to watch. But not a good thing, at all.

  2. A fair and honest assessment, Sam. And I think you’re right: money continues to ruin college sports (at least while everyone tries to maintain the ludicrous pretense that this is all “amateur”). Thanks for articulating this so well.

  3. When the students held an impromptu rally at Paterno’s house after he was fired, he said this:

    “The kids that were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. Tough life, when people do certain things to you. Anyway, you’ve been great. Everything’s great, all right.”

    Now there’s a class act that should be eulogized. You know, whatever they want to say, like “I was raped by a dirty old man.” Whatever, tough life.

    I don’t disagree about the money and corruption of college athletics. That’s why the crap at OSU should come as no surprise, nor should the NCAA’s slap on the wrist for it. However, Paterno was supposed to be different. He ran a program the right way and all that, except for at least a decade he was worse. Far, far worse.

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