The Penn State debacle is an epic tragedy with a perverse postmodern twist.
There are no heroes. There aren’t even any antiheroes.
There is no protagonist in the classical sense. Not a single main character evokes empathy.
And sympathy? Not a chance. That emotion is reserved for the victims alone.
Or so I thought until the last few days.
Don’t get me wrong. The eyes are bone dry for Joe Paterno, the famously principled football coach who saw nothing unprincipled about enabling a serial pederast. That putrid paradox is Paterno’s legacy now.
His family denies it. Vehemently. Regularly. Understandably, I suppose. But it’s been hard to feel their pain.
Their public statements employ the smug, clammy language of lawyers and spin doctors. In one communiqué, they vowed to conduct a real investigation – an insult to former FBI director Louis Freeh’s exhaustive report and to our collective intelligence as well.
Still, it was hard not to ache for Sue Paterno on Saturday as she visited her late husband’s statue for the last time.
We only see the Paterno family’s pride and denial. It’s not an endearing sight. But the widow and her five children are suffering.
I found myself feeling pity today for the oldest child, Joseph Vincent Paterno Jr., better known as Jay. I didn’t think that was possible.
There is an excellent chance that he was, to a limited extent, a silent accessory to Jerry Sandusky’s crimes.
Jay Paterno was on his father’s coaching staff for 17 seasons, from 1995 to 2011. It is inconceivable to think that JoePa Jr. had no idea that Sandusky was suspected of sodomizing boys. That he never heard about the shower scene witnessed by fellow assistant coach Mike McQueary.
But who knows? Maybe he didn’t.
Maybe he never had to wrestle with the implications of turning Sandusky in. The shame it would bring to the program. The trouble it would cause for his dad.
Trouble with the law, even.
This much is certain: Regardless of his culpability in the coverup, fate did Jay Paterno no favors. The guy was in a damn tight spot.
His boss was his dad. His dad was a legend. Can you really expect a man to commit both patricide and regicide?
So I felt a pang of pity for Jay Paterno today. Even though he is a grown man – and perhaps a co-conspirator – part of him is still a little boy who loved and idolized his father. And everything his father held dear has been destroyed.
Over the past nine months, Joe Paterno lost his job, his reputation and his life. On Sunday they took down his statue. Yesterday they took his record – wiped 111 victories off the books.
Joe Paterno is the winningest coach in college football history no more.
Some say that’s the most onerous penalty the NCAA assessed yesterday. It’s OK to take away money and scholarships and bowl bids, but take away Joe’s wins? No fair.
Seems a little late to be worrying about what’s fair, doesn’t it?
The boys Sandusky raped lost a lot more than a record. Or a statue. Or a job.
This story is pure tragedy indeed – not a single happy ending to be found – but I thought more today of Hemingway than Aeschylus.
I thought of a Hemingway short story called “My Old Man.”
The narrator is a 12-year-old boy named Joe. His father, a single dad, is an aging jockey fighting to keep his weight down. The kid adores him.
The old man wins a wad on a fixed race. He invests the windfall on good whiskey and a quality racehorse.
The boy beams when the old man and his new horse finish third in their first race.
In their second race, the horse breaks down; the old man is thrown and trampled. In an instant, both are dead.
As the bawling boy waits for an ambulance, he overhears two railbirds indulging in some schadenfreude. They say the old man was a crooked rider and he got what he deserved.
A jockey friend tells the boy not to listen to those bums. Says his old man was a swell fellow.
“But I don’t know,” the kid says. “Seems like when they get started, they don’t leave a guy nothing.”
About Mark Coomes: Contributing blogger Mark Coomes covered sports from 1988 to 2000 for The Courier-Journal, USA Today, Florida Today and The Monroe News Star.