Joe Paterno, a Modern Day Oedipus

The independent investigation of child molester Jerry Sandusky and Penn State’s football program was released this past week, and the facts are even worse than we imagined. There was a systematic cover-up as school authorities, including Coach Joe Paterno, put the interests of the school above the lives of young boys. Repeatedly, the report notes, Paterno, the president, and the athletic director made no effort to identify the child victims or determine if they had been harmed. As a result, Sandusky continued to use the storied football program as bait and continued to rape children.

Focusing on Paterno, the always forthright Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post bluntly states that the university’s sainted coach covered up the affair and then lied to the grand jury to save his reputation.

I’ve been thinking of the Penn State coverup in terms of Sophocles’s Oedipus and was confirmed in my impressions when I read an article by Stewart Mandel in Sport Illustrated. Mandel describes himself as naive for having so long taken a wait-and-see attitude:

I particularly feel like a dupe because, as someone who covers the sport for a living, I have a front-row seat to the warped and intoxicating power football can hold over a university. As a result of that power, disastrous consequences can ensue.

Oedipus, of course, is the Greek hero who defeats the sphinx that is terrorizing Thebes, marries the recently widowed queen, and becomes king. He is courageous and honest but also rash and arrogant. His arrogance may be part of what leads him to challenge the sphinx in the first place. “You all know me, the world knows my fame,” he tells his people. “I am Oedipus.”

In the end, of course, his arrogance brings him down.

As the play opens, something is amiss in Thebes—a plague has broken out and Oedipus is determined to find out the reason. The Delphic Oracle informs him that the plague will not lift until the city banishes the murderer of Laius, the past king, who is in the city. Oedipus is prepared to do everything to find out the truth and bring an end to the sickness. For various reasons, however, he can’t initially hear the truth when the seer Teiresias informs him of it.

With Sandusky on the prowl, there was rottenness at the core of Penn State’s football as well. Like Oedipus, Paterno was convinced it had nothing to do with him and thought he was above it all. He was so powerful than people didn’t dare question him and were willing to engage in complex measures to protect him. Where he was less than Oedipus is that he didn’t dispatch underlings, as Oedipus dispatches Creon to the Delphic Oracle, to figure out what was really going on. It’s as though he was willing to allow the plague to rage on, pretending that it just wasn’t happening. Oedipus ultimately faces up to what he has done but it appears that Paterno never acknowledged how he enabled Sandusky.

There is a scene that reminds me of the testimony of a janitor who witnessed one of Sandusky’s rapes. In the play, one man other than the seer Teiresias knows that Oedipus is himself the murderer. He is an old shepherd who is the sole survivor when Oedipus, in a crossroads dispute, kills Laius and his retinue. (He also happens to be the shepherd who was supposed to take the infant Oedipus into the mountains to die so that Laius and Jocasta could escape the curse.) When he sees Oedipus show up in Thebes and become king, he very understandably asks to be sent far away. As Jocasta remembers the incident for Oedipus,

Soon as he returned from the scene
and saw you on the throne with Laius dead and gone,
he knelt and clutched my hand, pleading with me to send him into the hinterlands, to pasture,
far as possible, out of sight of Thebes.

In the Penn State case, the janitor also understood his vulnerability given how men in power can act. Here’s Mandel of Sports Illustrated again:.

As you may recall from the Sandusky trial, a Penn State janitor witnessed a Sandusky rape and told his colleague about it, but neither man reported it to police. That colleague told Freeh investigators that “reporting the incident ‘would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes.’ ‘I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone.’ He explained ‘football runs this university’ and said the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.”

In Oedipus, the truth comes out as truth will, Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus gouges out his eyes and is banished. I have selectively quoted the horror expressed by the Chorus, dropping out references to Oedipus’s particular situation so that it is easier to capture our own sadness and horror as we gaze upon Paterno. As a coach with two national championships and the most wins in the history of Division I football, he too “outranged all men”:

                        You outranged all men!
           Bending your bow to the breaking-point
you captured priceless glory. . .

            . . .we called you king
we crowned you with honors, Oedipus, towering over all–
mighty king of the seven gates of Thebes.

But now to hear your story—is there a man more agonized?
More wed to pain and frenzy? Not a man on earth,
the joy of your life ground down to nothing
O Oedipus, name for the ages . . .

                        But now for all your power
Time, all-seeing Time has dragged you to the light . . .
I tell you neither the waters of the Danube
nor the Nile can wash this palace clean.
Such things it hides, it soon will bring to light–
terrible things, and none done blindly now,
all done with a will. The pains
we inflict upon ourselves hurt most of all.

The Chorus’s concluding passage also sums up Paterno:

People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus.
He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,
he rose to power, a man beyond all power.
Who could behold his greatness without envy?
Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.
Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.

Paterno died of lung cancer this past January and so is presumably free of pain at last. Penn State, on the other hand, must face up to what it did and failed to do. It can take a glimmer of hope, however, from the fact that Oedipus has a sequel, Oedipus at Colonus.

Written when Sophocles was in his 90’s and had witnessed the fall of the once great Athenian empire, it assures us that healing can emerge out of even the most terrible suffering. Oedipus has become almost god-like because he was willing to accept full responsibility and pay full penance for what he did. Great suffering mutates into great peace of mind.

Penn State will never be able to give back to the scarred men the innocence of their childhoods. But if it acts openly and forthrightly, it can begin to live up to the motto that it proudly proclaims, “Success with honor.” But first it must, like Oedipus, be willing to do what previously it failed to do: face up to the darkness and suffer the consequences for what it sees. This investigation was the necessary first step.

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  • Sue

    What a powerful parallel, Robin. I too, hope that Penn State will be able to move forward, perhaps even to become a champion for quick and compassion reporting for suspected abuse. This has been the recent rhetoric, and one can only hope that the fire lit will keep on burning and that child abuse will decrease as a result.


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