Similes: Failed Heroes

by TylerJ

He is summoned…by a committee of nervous citizens expressly to be a hero, but finds that he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him, but also, we feel, in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the image to exist. – Thomas Pynchon, “A Review of Oakley Hall’s Warlock”


Joe Paterno left in disgrace last November after 46 years from his position as head coach of the Penn State football team when allegations surfaced that he had knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual involvement with multiple children. Mike McQueary, one of Paterno’s assistants, went to Paterno in 2002 after witnessing Sandusky in the shower with a child. Recently, Paterno recounted that conversation he had with McQueary:

You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.

Francesco Schettino, captain of the now-sunk Costa Concordia, has been criticized for leaving his sinking cruise ship before all passengers had been evacuated. When asked why he left early Schettino said:

I was helping some passengers put the life boat to sea. At a certain point the mechanism for lowering it, blocked. We had to force it. Suddenly the system unblocked itself and I tripped and I found myself inside the life boat with a number of passengers.

In both cases the question is simple: why didn’t you act as we expected? Paterno claims he didn’t know “rape and a man” was possible. Schettino claims he tripped. Both answers are lies designed to distract from the frustration of their not living up to our expectations. Schettino should have stayed with ship and if he had, perhaps more people would have survived. In not performing his duty as ship’s captain, he exposed his own weakness precisely in a moment when he was expected to show strength. Realizing that the fissure between his actions and our expectations was unbridgeable, Schettino had no choice but to contrive a story of an accidental tripping.

Paterno, too, was unable to account for his decision to ignore allegations of sexual misconduct between a member of his staff and numerous child victims. He found himself in a situation so contrary to our expectations of how a head coach and campus luminary should act that the most sophisticated response he could give was that he was unaware that a boy could be raped by a man. Paterno is a clear example of a failed hero–he was a man whose image both on and off the field came to embody a man dedicated to improving the lives of Penn State students:

He was the rock. He was the constant. He was the conscience. He was JoePa, his nickname suggesting a fatherly quality to not just his players, not just Penn State students who could still find his number listed in the local phone book and not just Nittany Lions football fans.

He was a larger-than-life figure in the small, bucolic town of State College, and if you wanted to draw something good and decent from college football, well, here’s where you always could. Don’t worry, he’d still be there, as unchanged as ever.

And maybe that’s why it’s so difficult for so many people to make sense of Joe Paterno’s legacy. Paterno did so much good for so many people that there’s a desire to mitigate or explain away his errors in judgement. We pour our hopes and desires into a single person or idea because we need a “rock,” a “constant,” and most importantly, “a conscience.”  But we fail to realize how precarious that heroic image really is. We will go to great lengths to protect the integrity of that image, even if it means ignoring obvious truths. So, too, must the failed hero ignore obvious truths. Rather than believe himself to have acted cowardly–a thought too painful for both himself and his admirers–he pleads ignorance.

Last weekend, Joe Paterno passed away, and in his wake he left a complicated legacy. A legacy of great pain and of great joy that should remind us all that Joe Paterno was no hero–but he could have been.

Image Source: Getty Images;