“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