Joe Paterno, [former] Penn State head football coach, takes a moment to autograph a football at Paternoville.
I grew up with Joe Paterno, at least, on TV. Football is a passion in Columbus, Ohio, even for an immigrant Sri Lankan boy. I wanted to grow up and be Quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes, until Brett Hughes broke my collarbone in third grade and I realized that my indic frame could never compete. It’s really quite unfair. It’s physically impossible for the average brown person to play football or basketball.
I still watched, though, every game. I’d wake up early to read the sports page on Sunday’s, my dad even took me to a few games. I was Ohio State through and through, but I always respected and feared Penn State. They had no names on their jerseys and were led by a short, bespectacled man that I could theoretically grow up an become. He seemed like a bit of a geek, and he was. That was Joe Paterno.
This old GQ profile verges on hagiography, but it’s an interesting peek into his life. The man lives in the same house he always did, has translated and quotes Virgil’s Aeneid, and was in all ways a thinking man’s coach. And don’t be confused, football can be a thinking man’s game.
“Let’s look back at all the great societies. The Greeks. All right? Look at the Romans. All right? You go through medieval England. The jousting. All right? There’s always been sports. When the Spartans held off the Persians to give the Athenians a chance to regroup, in 400-and-something b.c. You think of the Spartan tradition and the whole bit, all right? The glory. The physical competition. Not the killing but the physical competition. I think it’s just a part of us.” (Icon)
So how did a thinking man make such a disastrous and unethical mistake? He knew that a child was raped in the Penn State locker room, that this abuse was probably ongoing, but he chose either not to see or not to do (more deets via ESPN). Perhaps he wanted to protect that Assistant Coach, the team, but he must have known that it was wrong. Really, really, grotesquely wrong. In the end it ended a good man’s career in a very bad way, because he did do something very bad. Not that he condoned child abuse per se, but that he didn’t do right. Why? There may be some clues in Aeneid.
About thirty-five years ago, Paterno was invited to give a talk at a luncheon at Penn State. The audience was a bunch of English professors, and most of them assumed he was going to talk football. It would be amusing, undoubtedly, to see a coach try to spin football as a metaphor that had anything at all to do with the academy of letters.
Paterno didn’t talk football. He talked Virgil, offering Aeneid as a model for a whole new kind of hero, one that, around 20 B.C., the Western civilized world had not yet met.
In the poem, Virgil proclaims pietas to be man’s highest virtue. The word is usually translated as “duty” or “devotion,” but it’s more than that. It’s the individual understanding himself to exist at the center of overlapping obligations. Through most of the poem, Aeneas isn’t getting it. He wants to be a good old-fashioned hero. Someone more like the stars the Greeks offered up: all this bad stuff coming at you and you ?ght it off and everyone cheers. A hero!
Fate steps in. Aeneas is called. Unlike the Greek hero who was fated to succeed, Aeneas has to choose. He can act, or not act, on the demands of the divine calling. It isn’t a onetime choice. He doubts himself continually, and decides, moment by moment, to endure.
His fuel is his recognition that his first commitment is to others and not to himself. He carries his father, holds his son’s hand, and goes on to found Rome, which is impressive. But what makes him a worthy man is his willingness to subordinate himself to his obligations.
That in a way could describe what caused this tragedy. Joe Paterno put the needs of his team, his school and a great institution above the abuse of little boys. He tried to observe his commitment to others, but in the process lost sight on his own judgement and lost everything. There’s a similar parable about his dilemma over shooting an AT&T commercial, but I prefer to go with Virgil.
It was great that the Big Ten had a coach who could read Aeneid in the Latin and apply it mold young men’s lives. It is a shame, however, even younger lives were brutally damaged under his watch. I still think he was a great man, but he made a great error for which other people had to pay. It’s fitting that he had to go, but still, in all directions, a shame.