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Joe Paterno and the stained soul of Penn State

By Roy Peter Clark, Special to CNN
updated 2:02 PM EST, Sat November 12, 2011
In State College, people walk by
In State College, people walk by "Inspiration," a mural that depicts Joe Paterno, fired over the sex assault case of Jerry Sandusky.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roy Peter Clark: Legendary Penn State coach Paterno is like a mythical paternal figure
  • He says loyalty to him holds echoes of Catholic, Italian-American reverence for pope
  • He says perhaps Sandusky sex abuse hushed for fear it would stain soul of Penn State "church"
  • Clark: Time to dismantle this "church" and stop protecting its fathers from their sins

Editor's note: Roy Peter Clark teaches journalism at the Poynter Institute. He is the author of the new book "Help! For Writers."

(CNN) -- The state of Pennsylvania gave us Joe Montana, Broadway Joe Namath and Smokin' Joe Frazier. That's a lot of big-time Joes. But added together their moral authority would total a tiny fraction of that established over a half-century by Joe Paterno.

If I didn't know Joe Paterno was a real person, I would swear he was invented, a character in a sports adventure novel written for boys in the 1950s. There he'd stand on the sidelines, hands behind his back, squinting in the sunlight, Joe Paterno, legendary coach at State College, the beacon of moral and physical courage, the shepherd of lost boys, pater familias in a place called Happy Valley.

An author could not invent a better name: Joe Paterno. St. Joe, father of a holy family of student athletes. JoePa. Papa Joe. Pater, as in Latin for father. Eternal paternal Paterno.

Our father, who art in trouble, hollow be thy name.

You hear it all the time: "Football is a religion in Pennsylvania" (Or Texas or Florida). To the Penn State students rioting in the streets Wednesday night, Joe Paterno was pope, a word that also means father. Not only does pope denote the Catholic bishop of Rome, it now can describe, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, any "person considered to have unquestioned authority."

The sacred role of the father as protector of the family is central to many cultures, including the Italian-American. This is not just a theory for me. Above my desk are three photographs: one of my grandfather, Peter Marino, as a young political candidate in New York City; another of the ship that carried his family from Italy to Ellis Island; a third, a copy of the ship's manifest, which lists him, at the age of 4, with his mother, father and two older sisters. They have 12 cents to their name.

When in 1972 I called my grandfather (our name for him was Papa!) to announce the birth of his first great-grandchild, I could hear his tears, and then his words: "Remember, Roy, the most important thing in life is family."

Harris: 'Joe Paterno did his legal duty'

How many of us as children have invested our hopes and dreams in the patriarch? "The father is head of the family," goes the familiar theological injunction, "as God is head of the church."

What happens, then, when little Tony Soprano discovers that his beloved father is also the head of a Mafia family? La famiglia. What happens when a beloved father abandons a family, or shames it? Most of us can remember with exquisite regret the moment that our faith in a father or father figure was shattered, a loss that can carry dark consequences.

Most institutions, even the Mafia, want to avoid scandal. The lower or higher the moral authority of that institution, the more that avoidance of scandal takes priority. Princes of the Catholic Church hid knowledge of sexual predation within their ranks, not because they wished harm to children, but because knowledge of that scandal would stain the soul of the Church -- and undermine its good works -- forever.

Consider the Penn State scandal in the same light. Why didn't "leaders of men" call the police on Jerry Sandusky, now accused of sexual assault, one of their own? Not because they wanted boys to be raped in locker rooms. Silence and inaction ruled because exposure of abuse threatened to tear down everything that JoePa had built up, not just a team or athletic program, but a story he had written for the university: that honor, sportsmanship, academic achievement and traditional Christian American values could attach themselves to a multimillion dollar sports enterprise.

Joe Paterno as BMOC: Big Man On Campus. Forever and ever. Amen.

The word "fan" comes from "fanatic." The "enthusiasm" that rocks a stadium derives from the Greek word meaning "to have God in you," a word that once carried the negative connotation of zealotry.

If my connecting Penn State to the Catholic Church (and to the Mafia) strikes you as offensive or at least out of proportion, consider how Ancient Roman it all is. It is the Roman Catholic Church after all; and the Italian crime syndicates organized themselves like the Roman Legionnaires, with heads and heads of heads.

As for Penn State? Just stroll around the ruins of the Coliseum in Rome. Bread and circuses has evolved into something a bit more civilized -- beer and football -- but the purpose remains the same: to entertain and distract through a quasi-religious communal experience, an emotional ritual that serves as a substitute for war.

A famous sports editor, Stanley Woodward, told his reporters to stop "godding up" the athletes, to quit converting sweaty football players into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The time may have come, through the excruciating agony of innocent boys, to stop godding up the coaches, and to dismantle brick by brick the arrogance of those who would turn a sport into a religion.

Commentators on sports television and radio have raised their sanctimonious voices to instruct us that this scandal is "not about football." That's like saying the sexual abuse of altar boys is "not about religion."

The scandal at Penn State turns out to be -- as it always is -- more about the cover-up than the original crimes. The cover-up didn't work for Nixon, or Cardinal Law in Boston, or for Joseph Vincent Paterno. If JoePa has been the pope of the Church of College Football, he turned the rest of us into acolytes. How many of us learned to bow down and obey, leaving our skepticism outside the church door?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roy Peter Clark.

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