Sunday, September 09, 2012

Late Retirement

I’m just finishing up the latest Joe Paterno biography by Joe Posnanski which seems to be getting mixed reviews because the author didn’t crucify Paterno as a vast majority of journalists (a better but less apt word choice than hacks, charlatans or necrophiliacs) have chosen to do in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.  It’s a good read that examines the man’s entire life as opposed to the bitter end.

A good read, but I surely have issues with it.  I’m left feeling much like when I read Keith Richards’ recent autobiography, which received glowing reviews.  I’m not sure why.  I’ve read at least a dozen books about The Rolling Stones.  Perhaps the most blunt was Spanish Tony Sanchez’s book, which Richards clearly doesn’t like for obvious reasons as it gets into touchy areas like Swedish blood transfusions and years of drug abuse.  But Richards’ book, I couldn’t help but feel afterwards that he was a profoundly spoiled rock star who found success very early in life and lived in a bubble of his own making for the rest of his days.  A self-serving, self-mythologizing bubble that, since he was a depraved, heroin-addicted rock star, doesn’t much lend itself to bubble-bursting, since low-level degradation is a sacrosanct understanding with most rock stars.

I feel like I’m being told a relevant story, but one that comes with a bill of goods, based on image and legend.  The last chapter in the Paterno book is where Posnanski loses me, as it’s a series of personal remembrances by family members and former players.  All positive in some respect, which feel like a stacked deck of cards.  (A biography is no place for a memorial like this; a coffee-table pictorial book would be a much better place for remembrances like this.)  All are “success stories” in some respect of players who have gone on to become businessmen, sportscasters, coaches, high-school principals, etc.  All because of the lessons they learned while associated with Paterno, the things he taught them that propelled them through life on this higher plane of existence, thanks to his guidance.

Which may be true on one level … but complete bullshit and against so much of what Paterno preached.  On one hand, you have him getting across the benefits of humility, a basic understanding of life, the simple desire for excellence of some sort, regardless of success to the outside world.  Boy, I can get behind that.  We all can.

On the other, look at it this way.  You could include Jerry Sandusky in that last chapter, sans what we’ve learned about his serial pedophilia.  Without that crucial bit of information, Sandusky is a raging success story thanks to Paterno’s tutelage and guidance.  Coach and defensive coordinator who helped forge two national champion college football teams, dozens of teams that finished in the Top 20 or even 10.  A man who also created an organization to help disadvantaged children get through life (we’d later learn the horrible, diabolical truth of why he created this organization).  In short, a winner in life.

Working in Manhattan offices my entire adult life, I’ve dealt with many “successful” people … a large percentage of whom tend to be oddly miserable people who have left a wake of destruction in terms of broken families and personal relationships, along with a crippling sense of personal insecurity that finds them never happy or satisfied with their financial wealth despite net worths well into seven figures.  Not everybody I’ve worked with, surely there are some people who have held on to their integrity and made efforts to be humane and decent with the people in the lives, personally and professionally.  But enough for me to know that people presented to you on paper as successful often do not see themselves this way and have lives no sane person would desire, as the personal unhappiness greatly outweights the financial wealth.

So, I’m a bit leery of Paterno’s “success stories” and would really feel no differently about those presented to me as people who “went nowhere” in life after clashing with Paterno or not living up to his expectations.  Don’t get me wrong – I know the man has done immeasurably more good than harm in his life.  If you can’t see that, you’re too focused on the awful way things ended for him and not taking into account the thousands of lives he’s touched in his work over the course of decades.  Millions when you count fans, of which I’ve been one since early childhood.

The truth is his inability to fully acknowledge simple human suffering – a boy being raped by a pedophile – ended up forever tainting his image and destroying a football program he spent his entire adult life creating and nurturing.  Forget about that for a moment.  Think about what he professed to believe in – winning with dignity, the great experiment, creating student athletes, etc.  There’s a story in the book about him quoting Shakespeare to his players to inspire them at a low point in Penn State’s history.

Cute stuff … but if he wanted to be an English teacher, why not be an English teacher?  If he loved literature that much, wanted people to share his wonder in the things he read, why not teach it?  At the end of the book, he claims he might have wanted to try his hand at poetry.  I can only imagine how awful it would have been, but kudos to him for even pondering the possibility.

My point being, he was a man so obsessed with always winning in some sense, winning in every way possible, even if it meant a minor personal argument that had no consequence, this was a man who could never truly grasp an artistic way of life or seeing the world.  Where you need to ponder, accept and in some way embrace losing, as it’s a simple part of the human condition we all face every day.  You need to accept and understand darkness on some level.  You need to accept failure.  You need to see through success to understand it often means nothing in the grand scheme of things.  Your personal success might mean everything to you, but it means nothing to everyone else.  All other people will care about is how you treat them, how humane and decent you are with them, what you genuinely show the world through your words and actions.  They don’t care about your statue.

The author claims that Joe understood this, but did he really?  He created a football program where he routinely put in 16-hour days to do nothing but win.  If you understand and accept failure … you just don’t do that.  Sure, failure will be part of your life in any sport.  But your obsession with winning will be so strong you will do whatever you can, within your moral parameters, whatever they may be, to ensure that you win.  Paterno certainly did, much to his credit.  If you’re a football coach, that’s what you’re paid to do.

There’s an interesting story one of his son tells, of being a bit of a black sheep in the family, the wild kid, who eventually got his head on straight, went to law school, and after his first year found himself ranked seventh in his class: a monumental achievement for someone who, it seems, might have spent the previous few years with a gurgling bong and fellow dudes attending college on the 10-year plan.  He tells his father about this, this incredible news of how he turned his life around.  Paterno’s response:  what, there are six kids smarter than you, and you’re resting on your laurels?

Think about how fucked up that is, in and of itself.  Here you have a son, who seemed on a path to nowhere, who had reversed his course in life to rise nearly to the top of his law-school class.  There are numerous stories like this in the book, of Paterno demanding his players to rise above, to keep pushing to do their best.  But in this personal case, a child he’s brought into the world, who had been stumbling and lost, turns his life around completely … and is then told his efforts are not good enough?

In the context of how Paterno handled the McQueary revelation in 2001, much less the knowledge (if we are to believe the Freeh Report) that he was aware of the 1998 shower incident with Sandusky, Paterno’s response to his son becomes even more pathetic.  Because bottom line, Joe did hardly anything.  Yes, he was a good administrator and reported the incident that a coach had reported to him.  But if he knew of the 1998 incident, with McQueary sitting at his kitchen table describing what sounded like a grown man having sex with a prepubescent boy on school premises that were his domain … the man should have been turning over the kitchen table, cursing his head off, grabbing McQueary, getting in his car, driving to Sandusky’s house and trying to kick the man’s ass knowing that this monster was raping a kid in the football coach’s locker room.  And after that, going straight to the police, forget about school policy, this is outrageous behavior he could not and would not tolerate.

If Paterno expected his sons and players to not rest on the laurels, settle for mediocrity and push the envelope … what in the hell was this?  Something doesn’t pan out here.  All these cute, inspirational stories of Paterno, in his yammering, high-pitched voice, pushing his players to go the extra yard … while he essentially did nothing in a situation that yearned for him to do so much more?

No.  I believe the reality was Paterno simply didn’t care.  No cover-up.  No evil scheme to protect his legacy.  He just didn’t care.  Which is almost as bad as a cover-up.  Because he turned his back on one particular young man who was in profound need of help from anyone … most likely because the situation did not impact his football program directly, and he didn’t want to get involved.  This radical moral error brought down not just him, but his entire program.

In the context of his entire life?  I think he just hung around far too long and should have retired at age 65, like most people do, record books be damned.  Problem being, he was incapable of letting go of that power he had.  It was obviously his only sense of identity.  Again, with my work in Manhattan offices, this is something else I see routinely, too.  Men working into their 80s because they have no identity without the sense of power their work grants them.  It’s sad to see.  These men are incapable of enjoying life without that identity – they’re afraid to even try.  For the men I see, it’s money.  For Paterno, it was being a legendary football coach.  For both, it’s power.  These men feel powerless as simple human beings which, again, as an English major in college and writer in my adult life, is how I will always see myself, just a human, with no desire to see myself as having more or less power than you have.  That’s about the only chance I have to see the world clearly.  I can only imagine how clouded your vision of the world must be if the only view you have of it is from some counterfeit citadel you’ve constructed out of your life.

Even through all this, I still consider myself on Joe Paterno’s side, his presence and influence  are woven into my life like so many other things I grew up with in Pennsylvania.  But I’m on his side with the knowledge that he blew it terribly in a situation that called for him to rise above and take control, as he so often demanded of his players, coaches and sons.  While I don’t advocate anyone losing his sense of power or legacy the way he did, losing his ultimately made him human again, which he wasn’t for a long time to so many people, be it weeping kids on campus when he got fired, or sports writers who felt the need to burn him in effigy when his situation blew the whistle on the shitty, plastic hustle their writing careers are.  He was a great college football coach who wanted to weave academics more into the sport to ensure that his players were ready for life after leaving college, as most of them would not become professional football players, and even if they did, would only do so for slightly more than a decade.

And do he did.  Would have been even better if he felt the same sense of protectiveness and dedication towards disenfranchised, defenseless kids in a program designed to help them, that really turned out to be a farm system for a pedophile.  But those kids offered him nothing.  They were just people … who were outside his program.  Even if something happened to one of them on premises that fell under his domain, and he chose not to be outraged, which he should have been, especially given that he couldn't stand Sandusky, according to Posnansky.  We still have a lot to learn about why he wasn’t and what really happened in 1998 and 2001 when this monster should have been stopped, as opposed to being ignored.  But again, I find myself learning more as new pieces, like this, keep getting added to the puzzle.  The next big pieces should be the upcoming trials next year.

Greatness?  Success?  Fortune?  They’re all things you should think about, balance with your own life, place in context with your experiences in the world, when you read a book like this, which I do recommend.  But the older I get, the less I want to respect people for presenting themselves as “successful” to the world.  I was raised by a factory worker, who was raised by a coal miner, and I have no idea what my great grandfather was.  Most of the kids I grew up with were raised by factory workers.  When I went to my class reunion recently, a lot of those people had basic working-class jobs and were struggling to put their kids into and through college.  They weren’t trying to impress upon me how successful they were – most of them professed to having a rough time.  We all do – that’s reality for most people.  We were all raised to recognize the only things we truly had were our word and each other.  What that has to do with beating everyone over the head with how wonderful and successful you are, I don't have a clue.


Geo B said...

Just found your blog after finding some of your Collegian days articles stashed in my desk and searched online for your name. Have to say out of all the various stories and analysis of the Paterno crash landing, you did one of the best jobs of framing it all out. Thanks for the insight. (would love to know how you got from PSU-late 80's to where you are now)

William S. Repsher said...

Thanks for the kind words, Geo. I think most Penn State grads had infinitely more interesting and rounded takes on Paterno than most of the media hacks who treated the issue like their chance to sermonize on the mount. Impossible not to have mixed emotions on the man when you went to school there.

How did I get here? I think it's punishment for sins I committed in a past life! Honestly, writing is the one thing I genuinely love doing, thus you can read along and glad you found me after all these years. But I'm like anyone else -- working all day, and in my case, doing stuff totally unrelated to my degree in English or writing. But paying me well enough to live reasonably in NYC. I'd love to get back more into the concept of writing for money, simply because I'm getting wiped on office work. But that's a pretty hard nut to crack these days, no matter how long you've been doing it or how much experience you have.