When the news broke that Penn State’s football coach, Joe Paterno had died of lung cancer, one might have thought there had been some sort of great national tragedy based on the media coverage. The spectacle that began with this “breaking news” did not end with the initial reports, but has continued with ample columns, discussions, tributes, and memorials to a football coach. Described as an “icon” a “revered coach,” “a leader,” and “a legend,” Paterno has been further lionized the short time after his death. Ivan Maisel, in his tribute to Paterno, captures the hyperbolic tone of the post-death commentaries
The 409 victories, while record setting, are not the full measure of the man. The young men he left behind, the campus to which he devoted his life, a campus whose leaders shoved him aside in the panicky, feverish days after the scandal broke, also give testimony to the life of Joseph Vincent Paterno. The whole of his life renders the seismology of modern-day journalism moot. The facts of a 62-year coaching career were shaken. They did not topple over.
Eulogies citing his success on the field, his millions of dollars in donations, his “fatherly” relationship with his players, and his importance in the community, have sought to elevate Joe Paterno as saint. Despite everything that has happened, the sports punditry has sought to resuscitate a “the image of Joe Paterno,” one which Bomani Jones noted “is null and void.”
This is not to say that media coverage has erased his connection, involvement, and culpability for the alleged child molestation committed by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky (see here for discussion). The tragedy in his death rests with the cloud of uncertainty, contempt, and unease about Paterno’s legacy. The ubiquity of the memorials reflected a societal unease that “he was, like so many of the characters in the books he told us to read, unable to have a perfect ending.” The references to the scandal become the pretext for the celebration because without it, there would be no reasons for the story of redemption and hero worship to the extent we are seeing. His connection to the sex abuse scandal has thus been pushed aside, serving as little more than a footnote to justify the societal mourning of a great football coach. "I really do believe that the drama of his last two months has fueled the media barrage. There is a high-octane effort aimed at defining his legacy as positive. That takes a lot of sweat equity given the recent scandals,” noted Dave Zirin in a message to me.
In many regards, the discussion around his death is framed around the last few months, his firing, the scandal itself, and his involvement. This is why there is so much celebration and this is why it is breaking news. It is difficult to imagine the extent and scope of the commentaries and celebrations had the last two months not occurred; I would be hard pressed to come up with an athlete or sports figure (celebrity) whose death has provoked so much memorializing as we have seen with Joe Paterno.
The efforts to memorialize and the hyper celebration also reflect the power of White masculinity and nostalgia within the cultural landscape. Described as a “model of law-abiding sportsmanship,” “a disarming mix of a lofty diploma and Brooklyn-bred blue-collar grit,” and as someone committed to education and honor, Joe Paterno’s importance exists apart from titles, victories, or football within the national conversation. As noted by Rick Reilly, Paterno “was a humble, funny and giving man who was unlike any other coach I ever met in college football. He rolled up his pants to save on dry cleaning bills. He lived in the same simple ranch house for the last 45 years. Same glasses, same wife, same job, for most of his adult life.”
The celebration of Paterno as patriarch, as the embodiment of a White working-class ethic, as a coach of a different era, sits at the core of the demoralization of Paterno. The national mourning in this regard reflects both a desire to redeem him in the face of the sex abuse scandal and to celebrate nostalgia for a different era of college sports and a heroized White working-class masculinity. As pointed out by Tim Keown, “The regurgitation of the Paterno-as-moral-messiah (-until-Sandusky) fable is what happens when people close their eyes and see the world the way they thought it was, or how they want it to be.” Or as Bomani Jones told me, “We are here because of the image we created of Joe Paterno,” because of the brand of Penn State and JoPa and its meaning in the cultural, racial, and national landscapes.
The aftermath and the response to Joe Paterno says much more about us than him. It reveals our continued difficulty, silence, and unwillingness to deal with the issue of sexual violence and abuse. It illustrates the ways in which we valorize and hero-worship football coaches and where football sits on the national landscape. It highlights the power of nostalgia and the celebration given to a particular inscription of White masculinity. Over the last year, several prominent African American figures passed away — Gil-Scott Heron, Manning Marable, Fred Shuttlesworth, Derrick Bell – whose contributions to humanity, to knowledge, to community, to justice and helping others reach are without reproach. Why haven’t their deaths been breaking news?
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).