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The saint and the sociopath

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33 years ago Joe Paterno had the poor judgment to remark in front of a reporter at a social gathering that he couldn’t retire from college football, because doing so would leave the game in the hands of coaches like Jackie Sherrill and Barry Switzer. Paterno meant that Sherrill and Switzer were willing to break NCAA recruiting rules in order to win football games.

As long ago as 1979, Paterno was already a sanctimonious windbag, who appeared to believe the nonsense he peddled so successfully to the ever-credulous media about how Penn State football was, in his words, a “Grand Experiment” — an island of old-fashioned virtues in the sordid sea of big-time college football, where doing things the right way while building moral character and molding tomorrow’s leaders took precedence over the won-loss record.

And even as recently as this January, if you believe his family and his lawyers, Paterno took the time to compose an op-ed about the glories of the Grand Experiment. Remarkably enough this piece wasn’t made public until the week Penn State’s independent investigation into the football program’s child rape scandal was scheduled for release.

This nauseating text exhibits a combination of complete moral blindness with something like a perfectly tone-deaf approach to public relations. We now know that Paterno, along with other high university officials, spent at least thirteen years carefully covering up and enabling Jerry Sandusky’s ongoing serial rape of an untold number of young boys, and that he lied about his role in all this while testifying under oath to the grand jury that indicted Sandusky.

Having played an integral part in enabling an atrocious series of crimes, and on the verge of having the extent of his participation in the cover-up of those crimes exposed, Paterno still could not stop himself from continuing to hold up the Penn State football program as an example to which others should aspire.

One lesson to take from this disgusting and horrifying spectacle is a very old one, taught by among others the religion whose services Paterno is said to have attended regularly. It is that spiritual pride is a far more deadly and dangerous sin than the sort of ordinary greed and dishonesty that Paterno believed coaches such as Sherrill and Switzer exemplified.

A man who breaks some rules in order to win a few more football games is likely to understand himself to be nothing more exalted than a hustler on the make. By contrast, a man who talks himself into believing that he is running a uniquely virtuous Grand Experiment, rather than just another successful college football program that mostly avoids the most egregious forms of cheating, is far more likely to develop the delusion that he’s some sort of role model for his peers, or even a quasi-spiritual leader of our youth.

Paterno fell so completely into this frame of mind that it seems he found it impossible to face up to the consequences of revealing that the Grand Experiment had ended up shielding and indeed enabling a predatory pedophile. Unable to handle the truth, Paterno spent more than a decade engaging in behavior a hundred times worse than anything Sherrill or Switzer were ever accused of doing. The legendary coach used the power derived from the cult of personality he had allowed to grow up around him to shield Jerry Sandusky from the legal process, which in turn allowed Sandusky to continue raping young boys.

In the end Paterno was so detached from the reality of what he and his program had become that, even as the carefully constructed façade of the Grand Experiment was crumbling all around him, he continued to present himself as something like a secular saint amid the fallen world of college football. It turns out the saint was indistinguishable from a sociopath.

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