Published in The Weekly Standard
A memorable bumper sticker from my childhood: “If God isn’t a Penn State fan, then why is the sky blue and white?” For me, growing up in central Pennsylvania, Penn State football was the universe while the team’s head coach, Joe Paterno, was the center around which it rotated. His likeness appeared on coffee mugs and Halloween masks, TV-dinner trays and cereal boxes. Since 1987, “Peachy Paterno” has been one of the most beloved ice cream flavors produced by the University Creamery. “JoePa” was basically a member of our family.
Then, as an undergraduate in Happy Valley myself, I became part of his family—a family with more living alumni (over 645,000) than any other school in the nation. On the days the Nittany Lions take the field, State College—home of Penn State’s main campus, a town with an official population of around 42,000—becomes the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, with a temporary population of over 230,000, as more than 107,000 fans regularly pack Beaver Stadium and thousands of tailgaters gather in its shadow.
Before even figuring out the way to the dining hall, I learned the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of JoePa. I arrived in State College in 2002—52 years into Paterno’s 61-year coaching career at Penn State, and the year before a 7-foot, 900-pound statue of him—literally an idol—was put up on the northeast side of Beaver Stadium. Any suggestions that Paterno should consider stepping down were met with vitriol. The facts that he was showing up at practice wearing mismatched shoes and hurting recruiting by failing to disclose his future plans were likewise summarily dismissed. How dare you! Don’t you know what JoePa has done for this university? He built the library. He quintupled the endowment, pushing it well into the billions. He transformed Penn State from a “cow college” into a world-class academic institution. This defensive refrain was the same one issued after the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal broke in 2011. And it’s the one echoed in filmmaker Barry Levinson’s Paterno.
The film marks Levinson’s third collaboration as director with Al Pacino (including a previous HBO film in which the actor depicted Jack Kevorkian). It’s a great casting choice. Although Pacino’s voice doesn’t quite resemble Paterno’s often-indecipherable mixture of nasal shrieks and coarse rumblings, he has the look down—with the aid of heavy makeup and, of course, a pair of the iconic, yellow-tinted Coke-bottle glasses—and delivers a deft performance, nailing the coach’s quirky persona and mannerisms.
The movie portrays the chaotic two weeks in State College after Sandusky, Paterno’s assistant coach for 30 years, was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation. The film follows Paterno, as well as Aaron Fisher (“Victim No. 1” in the case), Sara Ganim of the Harrisburg Patriot-News (whose reporting on this story earned her a Pulitzer), and two top members of Penn State’s administration: athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz (who both pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment in 2017). Little screen time is dedicated to Sandusky and his victims. In the 10-minute opening sequence, we see the coach helplessly and claustrophobically enclosed within an MRI machine. Lying on his back, he stares upward—and begins to see images not of his creator but of himself, in flashbacks of a recent gridiron clash with the University of Illinois. With quick-action cuts of the sideline and the student section, combining real-life footage with reenactments, Levinson sets the stage for the impending collapse by depicting the scale and fervor of the Penn State football phenomenon.
That game against the Fighting Illini, played on October 29, 2011, was the one that made Paterno the winningest coach in Division I football history. It was also the last game in which he would serve as a coach. With five seconds left on the clock, a 42-yard field-goal attempt by Illinois bounced off the right upright as time expired, giving Paterno in miraculous fashion his record 409th win. The coach wasn’t soaked with a cold bucket of Gatorade and he wasn’t carried triumphantly off the field; he had orchestrated the victory from the coaches box atop the west-side stands, having suffered shoulder and hip injuries from a sideline collision during a summer practice. In control yet distant—the ambiguous position that Paterno seemingly strategically assumed in relation to Sandusky throughout his career, as Levinson teases out.
What most Penn State alumni associate with their alma mater is decency and tradition, both epitomized by the absence of names on the players’ jerseys. Few serious college-football fans have forgotten what happened before the seven-point underdog Nittany Lions shocked the Miami Hurricanes in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. While the Miami players exited their plane in Tempe, Arizona, dressed in combat fatigues, the Penn State players wore suits and ties. And it wasn’t just a show. Paterno’s “Grand Experiment” was to prove that academic and athletic excellence weren’t mutually exclusive, that players winning national championships could concurrently earn high marks. Under Paterno’s tenure, the graduation rate for football players was around 85 percent, often the highest in Division I.
Unscripted was not—and is not—Penn State’s style. So to see an internal locker-room skirmish in Paterno is jarring. And to see the coach’s grown children depicted as scrambling to find crisis-management experts to help their father, even turning to Google for help, is both amusing and pitiable.
Stylistically, the movie evokes the working-class setting of central Pennsylvania: The use of a dark-blue wardrobe complements the ominous dark-gray skies glowering over a landscape dotted with forgotten mining operations. And the influence of the university is everywhere in evidence. Staff of the Patriot-News, who might be viewed as the oppositional figures, are often seen wearing colors that were for many of them undoubtedly those of the school from which they had graduated. (More than 334,000 alumni reside in Pennsylvania.) Indeed, the entire state appears to conspire against the inquirers and the dissenters. In the years before the scandal broke, Aaron Fisher spoke with a psychologist and a number of Pennsylvania state troopers, and testified to three separate grand juries. And despite a handful of district attorneys assuring Fisher that Sandusky would be swiftly brought to justice, no arrest was made for three years.
Benjamin Cook, who plays Fisher, has few speaking lines but skillfully conveys anguish and courage. The actors who play the Paternos come across as a close-knit middle-American family with boisterous and starkly authentic exchanges. Meanwhile, the Penn State administrators are one-dimensional and craven figures, quick to suppress or rationalize away incriminating information; they are often seen conspiring in groups of two or three. Not one of them is shown in the film demonstrating fortitude or moral insight.
Central to the film’s investigation is whether the elderly Paterno, after his 61 years at Penn State, was treated unfairly. Following an emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees on November 9, 2011, Paterno was notified via a curt phone call that he had been fired, effective immediately. (He had stubbornly rebuffed advice to resign and shape his legacy as much as was still possible at that point.) The film seeks to complicate feelings by showing the octogenarian physically and somewhat mentally decrepit—and indeed, he died of lung cancer just two months after being unceremoniously let go.
Paterno’s excuse—which was basically also that of athletic director Curley and vice president Schultz—was that he had done exactly what was expected of him. “I had a job to do,” Pacino’s Paterno says at one point. “I was working.” He is shown focusing on practice and scrutinizing films in his study while ignoring the pleas of his family to read the grand jury presentment that would eventually lead to Sandusky’s conviction. When he finally gets around to looking at it while seated at his kitchen table, the graduate of Brown University whose family conversation regularly involves references to Greek and Roman classics asks, “What is sodomy?” This Paterno seems desperate to convince those around him—and perhaps himself—of his innocence.
Paterno illustrates the tragedy of passing the buck and the dissipation of responsibility within large institutions. Thus it is also a condemnation of those in power who ruthlessly and callously seek to protect their privileged status. Like a rotten onion, sickening layers are peeled away one at a time, disclosing the prior knowledge of key members of the university’s administration and pushing the timeline of complicity back further and further—to 2001, 1998, the late 1980s. Then, shockingly, at the end of the film an individual who grew up in State College calls Ganim at the Patriot-News and attests that he informed Paterno as early as 1976 that he had been abused that year.
Until that point, Levinson treats Paterno with some empathy and leaves his degree of culpability vague. Yet given his elevated platform and the high standard of virtue he promoted and demanded, Joe Paterno, perhaps more than anyone else at Penn State, had a moral obligation to do more. “Educator,” “Coach,” and “Humanitarian” were the three words emblazoned on the wall behind Paterno’s statue. Penn State forever, Molder of men, Fight for her honor were the lyrics the coach heard sung innumerable times during his decades in State College.
In 2011, the 96-foot-long “Inspiration” mural on East College Avenue and Hiester Street, comprised of notable Penn State figures, was modified: Its creator painted out Sandusky. The artist also removed a golden halo that had been above Paterno’s head. But he restored it a few years later, as bright and shining as it had been before.
Despite all that has transpired and been revealed about the Penn State abuse and its coverup, it is still not hard to find Paterno apologists (aka “JoeBots”) today. But the release of HBO’s Paterno, fairly or unfairly, will likely make it harder for them to make their case. And, more deeply, the film should lead us to wonder about the extent to which the faith in idols that arises from heightened tribalism can blind us to dark and uncomfortable truths. In this situation, the tribalism involved obsessive devotion to one sports team’s competition. Yet the lesson about hubris and myopia is just as apt in politics and other areas of human life.
Paterno is ultimately a painful exploration of our inclination toward normality, our tendency to push aside signs that disturb the psyche. Its message is even more poignant in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein et-very-much-alia scandal of sexual assaults, harassment, and impropriety. In the Penn State case, as in some of the recent sex revelations, there were individuals who did not come forward to say what they knew and others who did speak but were not believed. The act of bearing witness in such circumstances can come at a personal cost—sometimes a terrible one—but it is essential for our moral order. When silence prevails, corruption can spread unchecked.