Joe Paterno is not a victim. He is a tragic figure, but he is no victim. We know who the victims are.
Aristotle gives us a framework and a language for thinking about tragedies such as the one unfolding at Penn State–hubris, the fatal flaw, fate, and catharsis (in the sense of purification or purging) come to mind. One hopes that there will be catharsis, but right now it just feels so damned depressing. For the children and parents harmed by Jerry Sandusky, this scene in Happy Valley was not cathartic:
That these creepy revelations about former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky came within one week of Paterno setting the NCAA Division I record for wins does certainly seem like fate. But maybe it is justice. I don’t know. But something–call it conscience, righteousness, or common sense–tells me that there is more than fate at play here. This tragedy could have been prevented.
And here is where Aristotle may as well have been discussing Paterno instead of Oedipus or Thyestes when he described the situation of the tragic hero. He is a “man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake” (Poetics). A lot of the commentary out there today tends to emphasize Paterno’s complicity in all of this through his silence. The implication is that Paterno himself is bad or wicked (see Buzz Bissinger’s blistering column). I don’t know. I just wish to hell he had used his influence to stop Sandusky when he first heard about this in 1998.
Paterno, who by all accounts has been, up to this point anyway, an honorable and decent man, has at the very least compartmentalized (for reasons even he probably doesn’t understand) all the disturbing evidence from trustworthy eyewitnesses that clearly indicated that the man who once coached his famous defenses, and who ran a charity for at risk kids, was a child molester. Sandusky retired one year after copping to the first official report of him showering naked with a boy. Of course, Paterno, as head football coach, knew this. Sandusky apologized to the university, and promised never to do such a thing again.
At the time, the official word was that Sandusky left football so that he could focus on his charity. In fact, after he retired he was still bringing boys to campus (through his charity), and, as we now know, just a few years after the first allegation he was allegedly seen by a graduate assistant committing a horrible crime against another boy in a Penn State shower.
Paterno, to his credit, at least reported this incident (or some watered down version of it) to the athletic director, who then called in the graduate assistant, and nothing was done. Nothing. Not by the administration, not by Paterno, and not by the graduate assistant. For nine years not one of them followed up on this. And just last week, as Penn State canonized Paterno for his record-breaking win, Sandusky was working out in a Penn State gym.
When I see the footage of Penn State students reacting to Paterno’s firing by destroying a television van, a symbol of their supposed victimization by “the media,” I cannot help but wonder what the real victims are thinking.
Yes, this is a tragedy.