Sophocles in Happy Valley
The tragic hero, Sophocles taught us, is an otherwise great man (a warrior, a king) with a flaw that makes him perilously human, which is to say imperfect and prone to terrible mistakes that may or may not involve the family matriarch. Thanks to the magic of theatrical drama, we who witness the tragic hero’s downfall understand that he is us and we are him. The dread and disgust we experience at his failures provide a kind of cleansing (catharsis), and, the Greek playwrights hoped, a kind of wisdom.
“Learn from the mistakes of others” is the lesson. But it’s one that’s easier to talk about than master. Instead, we constantly repeat the mistakes of other — and then find new tragic heroes to feel bad about, whether or not they’re tragic or a hero.
Our latest protagonist is Joe Paterno, 84, the lifelong Penn State football coach. We’ve been reminded frequently (incessantly?) in recent days that Joe Paterno symbolizes everything that’s good and glorious in intercollegiate athletics. That is to say he won football games (and therefore attracted television money) the “right way,” without committing recruiting violations and while producing an above-average graduation rate, 87% of his players. Never mind that the unpaid interns who crack heads for the ESPN cameras are scholar-athletes playing college football in exchange for a free higher education; they’re supposed to graduate as part of the grand bargain. Winning the “right way,” apparently is more difficult and challenging than winning the “wrong way,” and therefore someone like Paterno is to be celebrated.
We love winners. We especially love winners who overcome inherent challenges and beat the odds. But mostly we just love winners indiscriminately.
Paterno, from 2002 to 2009, kept on his coaching staff and failed to report to police a suspected child molester. Instead of learning, Joe Paterno repeated the mistakes of others, passing the buck to his Athletic Director and thereafter behaving as though he never knew nothin’. Regrettably, the molester, an assistant coach who remained intimately connected to the University through a charity serving children, continued molesting and was eventually caught. Multiple victims came forward. Who knew what and when came to light. And thus another inauthentic tragic hero was born: The Unimpeachably Clean Winner…With One Tiny Dirty Smudge.
The way the college football business works, if Clean Winner Paterno were Clean Loser Paterno, a guy with a miserable on-field record, he wouldn’t have a job.
But let’s imagine he did have bad results. Pretend he was a guy who never won national championships and delivered undefeated teams. Pretend he was disliked by a large number of alumni and students. Now the news breaks of his moral lapse. Is anyone crying (except the families of the alleged victims)? No, they’re too busy calling the loser an irresponsible lowlife not fit to lead impressionable young men. Get rid of him! And while you’re at it, investigate the possibility of criminal charges!
Amassing a 46-year head coaching career with more than 400 victories, on the other hand, will cause people to weep when you’re fired. Because you’re a certified winner who’s perfectly fit to lead impressionable young men.
In the spirit of Greek tragedy, we see ourselves in Paterno and now ask ourselves the Oskar Schindler question: “Could I have done more?” Many of us will answer “yes.” Yet how many of us will really learn from the mistakes of others and behave “properly” when it comes time to send a friend or loved one to prison?
Like college football programs, our lives are structured around winning – winning clean, wherein “clean” means “never having your improprieties discovered.” Our lives are not structured around justice or equality or the greater good. Our lives are structured around winning. We value our family and our clan and our company, our cabal, more than everyone who isn’t a member of our successful network. It behooves the conscientious player to follow the rules and not rock the hierarchical boat. Upsetting a winning organization, whether in a large corporation or a small family, is terrific strategy if you wish to be reviled and ostracized. Most whistleblowers live to regret doing the right thing. They learn that the right thing is a theory.
In practice, we act expediently and try to appear to be doing the right thing. See: The curious case of Cardinal Roger Mahony, another chap who didn’t think it was necessary to get the cops involved in a private matter of pedophilia.
The outsized sadness for Coach Paterno’s abrupt termination rises from the horrifying recognition that all along the great Joe Pa was just like us. In an age of vanishing icons, that’s what’s disappointing: he wasn’t a “hero” after all, just another opportunist protecting the wrong guy.
There’s some disingenuousness in our disgust and dismay at the situation. We create the actors, script the narrative, and build the grand set. When the truth comes out under the klieg lights, the denouement shouldn’t be a surprise.
We make play toys out of guns, video games about mutilation, and movies about killing people — and then remonstrate when the obvious violence infecting our society poisons our neighborhoods. We readily accept murky boundaries between legal and illegal — and then remonstrate when a seemingly upstanding citizen crosses the line. When it comes to political contributions, security interrogations, and, among other things, collegiate athletics, the essential difference between following the letter of the law and the spirit of the law doesn’t really much matter so long as you actually follow the letter of the law. Afford yourself deniability and criminal immunity: those are the rules.
We shamelessly sexualize youth in our popular and commercial culture and then express shock and horror when adults fetishize children as sexual objects. We demand that our athletic teams win. Not “try your best.” Win, damn it! Then we express shock and horror when they cover their ass inadequately — inadequately enough that they can be accused of covering their ass instead of “doing the right thing.”
The tawdry scandal in Happy Valley is a tragedy for the alleged abuse victims. But not for beloved Joe Paterno. Not for the vaunted Penn State football program. Not for the respected University. Sophocles taught us that it takes a tragic hero for there to be catharsis. This story lacks one. What we have here is one big outraged Chorus: the millions and millions of us sports fans whose unexamined desire for athletic triumph is their abiding tragic flaw.