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Joe Paterno – An American Tragedy

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“The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.”
– Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

In Shakespeare’s great play, the Roman emperor Julius Caesar is brought down by some of his former friends, including BFF Brutus. Of course, had Caesar only listened to those around him who were warning him, he would have been in his palace eating grapes instead of dead on the Senate floor, but then we wouldn’t have the tragic story Shakespeare told so well.

I recall reading Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy back in college, and it seemed to me to be one of the most solemn works, the heft of which weighed on me long after I had read it. The quick summary could be something about the main character, Clyde Griffiths, coming from a modest family and working his way to the top, only to be brought crashing down by his own desire for wealth and success.

When we think of Joe Paterno now after the horrific Penn State scandal that brought him down, it is not as the winningest coach in college football history. Sadly, he has been vilified for (if nothing else) lacking the discernment to report Jerry Sandusky to the authorities after his efforts within the Penn State system brought no action. Of course, Paterno’s famous line that he should have done more echoes ominously now, as he has passed on and left a fractured legacy in his wake.

What exactly is a tragedy? People regularly misuse the word, but if you look at Aristotle’s definition of it, tragedy has to do with a fall that was inevitable. Tragic heroes are noble in some way, have great ability, and they are admirable for the great things they do, but one thing stops them along the way: they have a deadly (tragic) flaw.

People who study these kinds of things will tell you all about tragic heroes like Hamlet, who could not decide what to do until it was too late to do it. If procrastination got Joe Paterno, it was undoubtedly after the fact. Paterno did report the incident involving Sandusky and a young boy to university authorities, but this went nowhere. Years and years passed and then the truth finally came out. One can question what Paterno was thinking all that time, and either the incident was forgotten or conveniently put aside in his thought process.

We all know the rest of the story, and Paterno ended up getting fired even after he decided to quit, so much for a quiet life of retirement. Then we learned that Paterno had lung cancer, and three months or so later he is dead. Today a private funeral was held for the man, with a public memorial set for Thursday with thousands of people expected to attend. We can wonder if Paterno died more from a broken heart than from lung cancer, but there is no explaining the unexplainable.

So many of his former players have spoken about their love for “JoePa.” We hear from them that Paterno was a good – even a great – man. To me he seems more like a King Lear type in a sense, perhaps more sinned against than sinning, another tragic figure who misjudges people and their intentions. He only understands the truth about good and evil too late; alas, this seems to be the case with Paterno as well.

We cannot debate with those who knew the good man Joe Paterno was, but it would be difficult to not see the other side of those abused boys or their family members, who view Paterno’s inaction as a sort of evil. Now, those who knew Paterno loved him and probably will never see what he did (or didn’t do) as evil, yet most of us would see sexually abusing children as something quite evil, and a failure to report that as being like an accessory to the crime.

How Joe Paterno will be seen in sports history is yet to be determined, for in sports the infamous and the legendary often stand side by side. Pete Rose is not in the Hall of Fame, but someone who was known as a racist (Ty Cobb) is in there. While I am not certain how “evil” gambling is (they play Bingo in churches all over the country don’t they?), I am sure that racism is an ugly and evil thing, and yet plenty of people forget about the dark side of Cobb as the years go by.

Right now Joe Paterno can be seen as a tragic figure, and perhaps the best thing to come out of this mess is that college football has been changed forever by what happened at Penn State. People in colleges and universities all across the country must face what happened there and learn from it; otherwise, there is a good chance this could happen again somewhere. When even one child suffers unnecessarily, all children (and their parents) suffer as well. If we allow things like this to continue to happen, then we are not part of the solution but part of the problem, and that will indeed be an American tragedy.

Photo Credit – AP

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana's stories, articles, and poems have been published in literary magazines and online. His books 'A Death in Prague' (2002), 'Move' (2003), 'The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories' (2005), and 'Like a Passing Shadow' (2009) are available in print, online, and as e-books. His latest books 'If the Fates Allow: New York Christmas Stories,' 'Garden of Ghosts,' and 'Flashes in the Pan' are available exclusively on Amazon. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated on writing mostly fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as a faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with 'Blogcritics Magazine' since July 2005 and has written well over 500 articles; previously co-head sports editor, he now is a Culture and Society editor. Having traveled extensively, Victor has visited six continents and intends to get to Antarctica someday where he figures a few ideas for new stories await him.
  • Very well done article on a difficult subject.

  • Thank you, Bruce. It’s appreciated.

  • Arco Conservadora

    The most disturbing thing about this whole incident is not the fact that the possibility existed that Paterno could have done more to stop Sanduskey but the hostility exhibited by Paterno’s accolytes when this possibility is even mentioned.

    I remember when the story broke there was a reporter who went to one of the PA State games to ask people what they thought of the story and Paterno’s role in it. One man who had to be in his mid twenties got so angry that it looked like he was seconds away from assaulting the reporter. He began yelling at the reporter “are you with Joe Pa” as he foamed at the mouth. Truly disturbing.

  • Igor

    Most molesters were themselves molested as children, which gives us a classic dilemna, as classic as any in Shakespeares plays: when we punish the molester we are also punishing a molested child.

    Would we be so eager to punish the child Sandusky, years ago, as we are to punish the adult now?

    Perhaps the fault lies in our notion of the efficacy of punishment.

  • Arco Conservadora

    What about the children that were molested who do not, as adults, molest children Igor?

  • Igor

    Estimates vary, but my sources say about 2/3 of molesters were themselves molested, so if we eviscerate (as suggested by some anti-molestation fans) and kill a few child victims who may not have become molesters themselves, we can call that “collateral damage”. Perhaps the requirements of swift and savage punishment and preemptive justice make that an imperative. After all, we seem to abide the deaths of the innocent 10-20% of convicts on death row. Perhaps it’s worth it: a few needless deaths to Stem The Scourge Of Molestation. To warn potential miscreants that our vengeance is swift and violent.

    Maybe we’re even doing those Collateral Damage children a favor since their lives may have turned out very badly anyhow. I know a young man who was molested at 14 by his baseball coach and who never could resolve his sexual orientation thereafter or even get his working life on an even keel and finally suicided at 42.

    Maybe it’s better that all victims of molest be terminated, thus preventing some future molests (in a large number of cases) and sparing Mitt Romney from being taxed to provide tax-supported therapy for such low, mean and undeserving people.

    I wouldn’t suggest such a thing, (being the high-toned kind of person I am) but less squeamish people may want to think about it.

  • Great article. You presented the facts well. I’ve gone back and forth on what Paterno should or shouldn’t have done. On the face of it, Paterno should have followed up on the incident. On the other hand, he did report the issue to his superiors. Many companies have policies that dictate what you should do in incidents like this. Paterno did what many policies require. Was it up to Paterno to follow-up or even take it to the police? Probably but he did report the issue.