Happy Valley

Our handcuffs of paper clips and pumping gas are vicariously broken by their accomplishments we see ourselves into.
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“A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world.”—Nathaniel Hawthorne

Sports crystallize the hopes of our better angels. Watching games can clear an upward arc from the banality of our lives to the heroic world Hawthorne referenced. Athletes play, coaches coach. We root. They win. We win. Our handcuffs of paper clips and pumping gas are vicariously broken by their accomplishments we see ourselves into. Gods are created by humans in part because it is lonely down here.

But there is a danger in becoming more than human. It can lead to doing things that a human should not.

This is the flipside to sports, and to fandom’s projection of a million wants into one body at one moment in time.  As heroes go up, so must many come down.   Call it the Mike Tyson effect.

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The problem with sports is relatively simple. As it is a sublimating cultural force that gives both power and something like divine grace to many ill-equipped to deal with it. This can end horrifically, as it recently has in Happy Valley.

Of course the end is not always this tragic. There are sports heroes who stayed pure, despite the propensity for hero worship to bring out Black Swan-ish dark sides: Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, and Pat Tillman come to mind. Not all were fairy tales, yet their feats stood to soothe the ills of their respective times. Owens and Robinson: blacks in a white man’s world; King: a woman in a man’s world; Tillman: selfless in a selfish world. In each case, it was as if their immunity to succumbing occurred because their heroisms traced the curve of a societal crisis—their career  powered by a crowd-sourced need for personal courage and success if only to provide the image required to move civilization forward.

But this is rare. Much more often our heroes succumb after a run of success. We saw it just this summer. The Red Sox, a team and manager that had so recently cured a bad a dose of civic insecurity as ever there was—even they cracked, imploding like a supernova. And what’s worse, the former heroes were sadistically recast: Francona a monster, Beckett a toxic dick.

As a society we need our heroes to remain so, or else they ruin the reason to cheer. Which brings us to Penn State.

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In the case of Jerry Sandusky, it was not so much the pressure to be great that felled him as much as it was a kernel of evil inside that ate up all that was said to be great around him. But the sins of that man are not the point here—those sins are laid out for all to see in the now-open hurt of the children he hurt. 

What is the point was Sandusky was not stopped and was allowed a career of molestation that grew around their touchdowns.  He was allowed this because the alternative appeared worse: ruining the reason to cheer. After all, Happy Valley largely existed because of football. And so Sandusky was protected by a deep, universal need for heroics, for something greater.

Not JoePa. Anybody but JoePa. We can’t…

These horrors will not bring Paterno down, will they? One “tiny” sickness will not smash up Happy Valley. But unfortunately, these horrors did just that. JoePa was not too big to fail. But the denial of what happened at PSU continues, even after the truth and its consequences became clear.

On TV on Thursday night, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The smile on JoePa’s face. Standing in front of his house, in the light of the cameras, against the backdrop of a caved-in central PA night, he stood there before a cheering crowd. The rooters were chest-painted and picked at the victims’ pain with their chanting. They had made a mountain of this man and were not going to let it crumble.  Despite the reality of it all. Despite the fact that the optics of their denial did not wear well.

Yet the saddest part of a very sad scene was Paterno’s perhaps involuntary reaction: smiling, cheering back. In an instant, the mythical genealogy, from God to Rockne to Lombardi to JoePa to god, from god to family to football—it was all broken, unchained by the emptiest of smiles that was in fact one of the unhappiest things I have ever seen.

Of course, by now another hero has fallen. But this crash is louder than Tyson or Tiger or steroids or point-shaving. The entire theater is crashing down around us. Leaving the loneliness to sit resting in the valley perhaps heavier than it ever has before.

 


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