Today marks yet another sad day for State College, Pa. and college football at large, two entities that have recently weathered quite a few bleak mornings. Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno passed away at age 85 today due to lung cancer.
And as can be expected anytime anyone of note spins off this mortal coil, social media has been flooded with tweets, status updates and blog posts (ahem) about the man and his legacy. Of course, these tributes have been tarnished by the same blemish that brought Paterno down from his perch as college football’s winningest coach: mentions of his major moral misstep when confronted with information that his then defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children.
What’s most striking — though sadly not shocking — is how much of this lazy lionizing is so tightly wrapped in admiration that it calls for temporary amnesia or outright dismissal of Paterno’s most significant failure.
All this pledging allegiance to the man reminded me of a classic Jerry Seinfeld bit about the rabidity of sports fans.
I’m the first to admit that I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of sports. I can’t list any stats (unless they involve how marriageable Tim Tebow isn’t) and I’m not terribly invested in who wins the Super Bowl. However, until recently, the thing that I’ve always loved about sports is how it often prizes the collective over the individual.
This blog has always been about the outsider feeling that has colored, for lack of a better term, so much of my life. I was the girl who scrawled the lyrics to Mariah Carey‘s “Outside” on the front of my middle-school math text. Fitting in was never for me. But growing up with an athletic and hypermasculine basketball coach for a father taught me something very important: “Never trust a man who doesn’t like sports.”
Apparently you don’t have to be an awkward black girl in a predominately white environment to seek belongingness. All you have to be is human, which is why I completely empathize with sports fans. I still wear my Iowa Hakweyes sweatpants with pride and smile each fall Saturday morning when my dad hangs the Hawkeye flag outside our home. Feeling part of something larger than yourself is comforting. And when that collective triumphs, it’s inspiring. It’s uplifting. It’s a feeling no individual victory can trump.
And that’s all great. But I don’t bleed black and gold. I could never fully give myself over to the gridiron religion for the same reason it’s Sunday and I’m sitting in a bath robe instead of a choir robe or a jersey, on my bed instead of in a church pew or a stadium seat. I just can’t fully give myself to an entity bigger than myself. Maybe it’s because I’m a control freak, maybe it’s because I’m a token or maybe it’s simply that I’m staring at these people who are logically able and willing to pretend that it’s totally acceptable and forgivable to not do everything in one’s power to stop child abuse.
I cringed throughout the film, remembering the chants and slurs directed at the ultimate Chicago Cubs fan, vilified and victimized by his own for the unending passion for the game and his team that they all shared. How can the same mindset, the same breed of tribalism, that turned against Steve Bartman for “thwarting*” the team’s World Series hopes, envelop a man who failed to protect children? When did sports fandom turn into the Mafia?
Paterno was a good man who missed the ball when it mattered most. But unlike Bartman, Paterno’s massive moral fumble may have resulted in abuse and permanent psychological damage for scores of young men. Whether or not it’s the case, I don’t agree that the debate about JoePa’s character should die along with him. Certainly not as long as the victims of his inaction are still alive to suffer.
I don’t agree with everything Bill Maher says, and find some of it downright offensive, but he was right when he once said Communism and Stalinism were state-sponsored religions. Well, he can add another one to that list: sports. (There’s no separation of church and state if the government is paying for the church/stadium. And don’t forget that football coaches at state universities are indeed public employees.) Jon Stewart wasn’t so far off, either, when he compared Penn State to the Catholic Church.
Remember whichever version of JoePa you want. Maybe it’s the quiet, quirky old guy stumbling around the sidelines as he led his team to victory. Maybe it’s the college football mastermind. Or perhaps it’s a guy who was great on the field and less so off of it. But in my mind it can’t be all three. You can’t be a God and yet just “like so many of us” with our human failings.
I was wrong. The religion of Penn State football, with its Church of Saint JoePa, didn’t crumble when he was fired last November. No, it’s all disintegrating now. The savior has died — with resurrection looking unlikely — and the disciples, in excusing his inaction, are now admitting he was indeed a mere mortal. Come next Sunday, that’s going to make worship a lot more uncomfortable.
*Never forget that there was a ninth inning and a seventh game for the 2003 Cubs to screw up, which they did, post-Bartman.