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The Myth of the Coach—Paterno and the Problem with College Sports

WHEN JOE POSNANSKI’S Paterno debuted at number one on The New York Times best-seller list, it was not thanks to the reviews. The Atlantic called it “A Relentless, Failed Defense.” Salon went with “disgusting” and “a minor literary crime.” Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, who used to work with Posnanski at the Kansas City Star, accused his former colleague of “journalistic cowardice.” All, of course, for Posnanski’s failure to properly document Paterno’s complicity in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Indeed, the book mainly has Sandusky to thank for its commercial ascent.

But I suspect Paterno also owes its success to our preposterous sepia-toned ideal of the coach. After news broke that storied former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had died, ESPN’s Ivan Maisel recalled the values he embodied: “integrity, respect and a romanticized past.” A past doesn’t just get “romanticized” on its own. If you want a nostalgia-trip, if you are looking for the good old days, Paterno does not disappoint.

With its unabashed celebration of the old-school values of its titular hero, Paterno is a defense of college sports; a counter-example to Taylor Branch’s Atlantic essay “The Shame of College Sports,” which argued that the unpaid, amateur status of college sports—the emblem of its innocence—was in fact its greatest shame, allowing and facilitating blatant exploitation of athletes. But far from rebutting Branch’s essay, Posnanski has unwittingly proved his point. By depicting his subject as a paragon of locker-room virtue, Posnanski has bought into the romance of the amateur that obscures collegiate athletic corruption.

Done right, Posnanski suggests in Paterno, college sports are coach-taught tutorials about the game of life—extracurricular activities with moral oomph. This brand of magical thinking is pervasive; we want to believe that college athletes are bulking up their values and their intellect along with their biceps. (Outrage ensued when an Ohio State quarterback recently admitted he didn’t care about academics.) Indeed, the myth persists in part because we maintain that “student-athletes” are being justly compensated through their education, on and off the field. Posnanski’s Paterno plays an essential role in this mythology. He is depicted first and foremost as a teacher and a patriarch. In our insistence that college athletes be treated as children, we have created fathers for them too.

Paterno was supposed to be released in 2013, on Father’s Day. When the Sandusky scandal broke, Simon & Schuster moved up the publication date. Paterno the anti-hero suddenly had appeal outside the Dad demographic. But Paterno isn’t merely for Dad; it’s also about him. In his concluding chapter, Posnanski parses Paterno’s legacy through the life lessons the coach imparted to his players and children. An insurance salesman learned to “act with grace.” “He always tried,” his daughter Mary Kay says. “I would be poor, disgruntled, and discouraged, if I had not had Joe’s words to rely on,” says a risk consultant. Et cetera. The testimonials ring false, but not because they are improbable. Quite the opposite; we have grown so accustomed to popular depictions of the coach as the father figure that such commendations come off as hackneyed.

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The most obvious recent fictional example of a beloved pop culture Dad/Coach is Eric Taylor, the high school football coach played by Kyle Chandler in “Friday Night Lights.” In the show’s first season, the fathers of the team’s three stars are either dead or absent. After a former player asks him for a job, Taylor says, “I’m not the kid’s father, I don’t know why he’s coming to me.” Taylor is not merely a coach who molds young men, he is the high priest of his community, a clear-eyed dispenser of tough love and folk wisdom. “He healed this team,” someone says when the team reaches the state championship. “And he healed this town.”

The healer trope is not unique to “Friday Night Lights.” In 1986, in the film Hoosiers, the Gene Hackman character, like Taylor, is an outsider who whips his unruly high schoolers into shape by emphasizing character over success. The same themes appeared in “The White Shadow,” the cult television series from the late ’70s (which aired before it would have been considered controversial to depict a white savior coach reforming an undisciplined minority basketball team), the forgettable 2005 film Coach Carter, and others.

There’s nothing inherently phony about emphasizing a coach’s impact on impressionable adolescents. Michael Lewis, in his book, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life, wrote that his high school baseball coach was responsible for nothing less than reversing the trajectory of his entire life. By the end of the book, Lewis is pleading with a new generation of helicopter parents to let the Coach Fitzes of the world do the real child rearing. “I [have] become aware of a new fear: that my children might never meet up with their Fitz. Or that they will, and their father will fail to understand what he’s up to.”

Again, this is believable stuff. What strains credulity is Posnanski’s insistence that Paterno’s biography belongs in this category—that he should be remembered not for transforming Penn State from farm school to national powerhouse, or even for his cowardly handling of the Sandusky situation, but for the trite wisdom he passed down to his players. To preserve Paterno’s fuzzy mythic status, Posnanski twists himself into knots omitting specifics. He recounts Paterno’s love for politics without once affording us a glimpse of the man’s opinions. (It would have been helpful to learn that JoePa introduced George H.W. Bush at the Republican convention in 1988.) He writes glowingly of Paterno’s “Grand Experiment,” in which the coach emphasized character and academics over football, but neglects to cite the 163 criminal charges that 46 Penn State players racked up in a six-year span in the 2000s.

Finally, we learn nothing new about Paterno’s failure to report Sandusky’s behavior to the police, or his dismissal from Penn State, which Posnanski insists, “is not my story to tell.” But we are of course treated to plenty of cute details about Paterno’s home phone number (listed!) and his irrepressible sweet tooth. This is Joe Posnanski, reporting from Leave it to Beaver Stadium, in beautiful Happy Days Valley, PA.

The book’s argument rests on the notion that Penn State players saw Paterno as a grizzled, tough-loving father figure. On the playing field, he was a successor to Knute Rockne and Bear Bryant; and in the locker room, it was all Dead Poets Society. But as Whitlock put it in his review, the book reveals more about its author than its subject; it is Posnanski who craves the Paterno he has invented. “I [am] a huge fan and admirer of Joe’s,” Posnanski wrote when he announced the project. “I am endlessly fascinated by him and his lifelong quest to do something large.”

Posnanski’s romanticism is just a spectacularly misapplied cliché of our culture. His adulation is symptomatic of the broader trend: college coaches are revered not just for the victories they accumulate, but for the moral authority they command and the wisdom they ostensibly impart. The storied college basketball coaches Mike Krzyzewski and John Wooden have certainly inspired devotion among their players, but they are perhaps equally admired by the middle-aged men who buy their management books. Or look at this photo, depicting a line of fans stretched the length of the football field, wearing Alabama Crimson, seeking autographs from superstar coach Nick Saban; it betrays a cultish, adoring devotion witnessed only in the amateur game. By celebrating college coaches more than their professional counterparts, we forget that the amateur game is the more corrupt one. (Saban, with a salary of $5.3 million, is no doubt the highest-paid public employee in Alabama.)

Which brings us back to Taylor Branch. “The Shame of College Sports” was published just before the Sandusky scandal broke, but it anticipated one of its lessons: Division I universities had been systematically corrupted by their high-earning sports programs. And college sports fans gave cover to that corruption by buying into the myth that their teams aren’t really in the business of making money, but of nurturing kids and preserving tradition. Indeed, many fans remain oblivious to the full dimensions of the unpaid labor that players are putting in, because of the belief that athletes are getting some sweet psychic deal out of the whole thing. Coach-worship perpetuates this. We paper over how vastly undereducated and overexposed to injury the athletes are, assuming their schools and coaches are looking after them. We recast men such as Saban and Paterno as mentors who just happen to coach, and their players as students who happen to be athletes. And in doing so, we deny what a nasty business college sports is.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer in Washington, D.C. and a former Reporter-Researcher for The New Republic. Follow: @svzwood