I have written before in this space about fallen heroes, and America’s inability to see shades of gray. We are quick to build up our iconic figures, and even quicker to tear them down—it’s the American narrative, really. We are often uninterested in discerning complexity; we prefer to see our figures as good or bad, strong or weak, hero or villain—as though life is a Disney movie, with clearly defined roles and two-dimensional characters.
And perhaps this isn’t a uniquely American trait. Perhaps it occurs in societies across the globe; perhaps it is the modern human condition, shaped and formed by generations of exposure to melodrama, in its many forms. But the fact remains: we love this story—the fall from grace—in all its tellings. Just watch the news. I promise that you’ll see it unfold, time and time again.
In its latest incarnation, it’s the story of Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach at Penn State, where he has coached since 1950. He was an assistant coach until 1966, when he became the team’s head coach. In his career as head coach, he’s racked up a record of 409-136-3; he’s won two national championships, three Big Ten championships, and 24 bowl games. Over 60 years, he has become an icon in college athletics. And last week, it all unraveled.
Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in Tora Bora, you know that Coach Paterno was fired last week amid accusations that he covered up sexual abuse allegations against his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. It’s ugly, it’s gruesome, and I don’t intend to belabor it. A million words have been written about Sandusky and Paterno since the case broke. If you’re interested, that’s what Google’s for.
But Paterno’s fall from grace has really driven this narrative. Had Paterno been in the dark about Sandusky’s transgressions, this wouldn’t be front-page news outside of the Rust Belt. Sandusky was not a household name; his star power was nearly nonexistent. When Paterno’s role in the cover-up emerged, it suddenly fit the narrative. How could our hero, Joe Paterno—the winningest coach in Division I football—turn a blind eye to something so egregious? How could he sweep this under the rug?
Again, we don’t do well with shades of gray. We won’t separate Joe Paterno from Coach Paterno. We don’t deal well with dichotomy, especially when measuring success against character flaws. In the aftermath of Paterno’s firing, riots erupted on the Penn State campus. Students took to the streets in his defense. Meanwhile, the nation watched in confusion, unable to understand the outrage of Paterno’s defenders. Who was speaking out for the alleged victims?
It’s quite simple. Sometimes, we’re unable to let our heroes fall. Between the black and white views of good and evil, there lies a world of conflict. And that conflict spilled into the gray streets of State College, PA, last week.
But the story we love is a little richer, a little more complex, than this. Yes, we love the fall from grace. It runs parallel to the story of Adam, in the Garden of Eden, and meshes with all of the mythology we embrace. We’ve seen it time and again: O.J. Simpson, Richard Nixon, Lindsay Lohan, Mike Tyson, Charlie Sheen, Barry Bonds and Anthony Weiner. So many have had their legacies uprooted by scandals, high crimes and misdemeanors. (I mean, we’re into the fifth season of Celebrity Rehab.) But we also love a comeback. To be able to offer forgiveness is empowering, and we’re quick to forgive past transgressions.
It’s a story as common as the scandals themselves. Consider Britney Spears, Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Chris Brown. Then there’s Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey, Jr. and Tiger Woods. And you can probably come up with a dozen more.
Paterno’s legacy will always be marred by this scandal. It will be his cross to bear, his asterisk. It doesn’t diminish his coaching legacy, and doesn’t shave a single win off his record. But it also isn’t about loving or hating the coach or the man—it’s just another shade of gray.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 11/17/2011.
© Damien Willis, 2011. All rights reserved.