When the legendary — and former — Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno died on Sunday morning, the first thought I had was of Oedipus the King. Like Paterno, Oedipus was much beloved by his subjects and, like Paterno, his moral blindness resulted in tragedy. There are those who say that Paterno, who was diagnosed with lung cancer not long after the news of the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke and an empire 46 years in the making began to crumble, died of a broken heart. I don’t doubt that it hastened his death.
Perhaps it seems the height of hyperbole to cast Paterno’s fall from grace as worthy of Greek tragedy, but consider that Paterno was not only an icon at Penn State but a genuine legend in American sports. If there were a Mount Rushmore for college football coaches, Paterno’s face would not only have been on it — before the fall — it would have been the most prominent.
It was not only that Paterno had been at Penn State for 46 years and built a great football program that had endured over that span of time. It was that he was a symbol not just for succeeding, but for doing it the right way. If you had been asked to describe Paterno, you would have used words such as “integrity,” “honor,” and “loyalty” in a summary of his career and influence on the game. In a culture in which scandals, usually related to a “win at all cost” mentality, are all too common, Joe Paterno was the gold standard, the example you could point to if you wanted to demonstrate that there were still good guys out there whose character was beyond reproach.
The most bitterly ironic part of his fall from grace is that Paterno was the kind of coach you would want if you had a son who was planning to play college football. You would have trusted Paterno with your own child, and indeed, there are hundreds of players and former players who have stepped up to defend his reputation in the wake of the charges of serial child abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and allegations of a cover-up on the part of Paterno, the former president of the university, and several others. As scandals in American sports history are weighed and debated, this will go down as one of the very biggest ever.
Very likely, you already know the basic framework of the story. When Paterno was told that Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in the shower on campus back in 2002, Paterno “turned the information over” to someone else internally at Penn State. Sandusky was ultimately not charged, and Paterno did not follow up. This was nearly 10 years ago. Last fall, Sandusky was charged with 52 counts of child molestation, for which he will soon stand trial. On Nov. 9, not long after those charges had been made public, Paterno announced his retirement, but he was fired along with school president Graham Spanier less than 12 hours later by the Penn State board of trustees, who had gone into full-scale damage control as the scandal dominated the national news every day and night.
It has been sad watching Paterno scramble to salvage what remains of his reputation at the same time that he was literally fighting for his life from lung cancer. Less than two weeks ago, Paterno spoke on his action — and non-action — to the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins: “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. 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.”
To say that this explanation is inadequate, or even pathetic, is not just an understatement, but a mockery of common sense and basic human decency. Paterno was not just some guy at Penn State who had to follow procedure and observe the chain of command. He was the king. Had he chosen to do so, he could have pursued these charges vigorously, relentlessly, not only for the sake of the 10-year-old boy who was allegedly raped by Sandusky on that particular occasion, but for the sake of all those future victims who might have been spared had Paterno acted with honor and integrity when it mattered most.
Instead, he passed the buck. The very best that can be said is that he buried his head in the sand and rationalized that he had done what was expected of him. It is unlikely that history will be so kind in its verdict.
For all the good he did for so many young men, his epic failure to do more than the bare minimum, to do everything in his considerable power to protect young boys from a predator, Paterno’s final legacy is not just tainted by tragedy, but defined by it.
In the end, like Oedipus, he simply could not bear to look upon the truth. What a crying shame.