It has become almost banal to compare sports mania with religious cults, and indeed, the key features of worship, iconography, and religious cultural immersion are manifest in our commitment to our favorite teams, players, and coaches. In the past several years such criticisms have homed in upon one of the most venerated—and envied—football programs of them all: the Pennsylvania State University Nittany Lions. In the wake of the child sex abuse scandal that first erupted at Penn State in the fall of 2011—a scandal which most directly led to the conviction of former Penn State assistant coach Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky on forty-five charges related to child sex abuse—the withering independent investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s firm blamed the failure of university leaders to root out the abuse, in part, on a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.”
Matt Sandusky, the adopted son of the former Penn State coach, knows this phenomenon all too well and from a unique insider’s perspective. “In this town, if you’re religious and you think of God as being the all mighty, the all encompassing . . . you could put Joe Paterno into that realm,” he says. “But then Jesus, you know, his son, the man that’s right there, would be Jerry.” In many respects, this jarring quote illustrates how the charge of idolatry seems theologically apropos for the way in which we relate to the iconic figures of big-time college football.
Nonetheless, a hapless confusion and a certain vagueness still stymie a realistic exploration of the ideological dimensions of college sports. One resource that can shed new light on these discussions, from a theological and biblical perspective, is the quirky yet brilliant work of lawyer and Episcopal lay theologian William Stringfellow. In particular, his naming of “images” among the principalities and powers may help us understand better how the fame of a revered sports figure can take on a life of its own, transcending the personal existence of its subject. I will briefly attempt to relate Stringfellow’s insights to the cult of the late Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, whose venerable image has seemingly survived one of the most notorious scandals in college football history.
Happy Valley, Amir Bar-Lev’s brilliant documentary about the Penn State scandal, does not shy away from framing the role of the football program at State College in religious terms; it offers a rich resource for pondering the social psychology of religious iconography. In one scene, a student stirs an angry crowd gathered to protest the summary firing of Paterno by lifting up a picture of the beloved coach. In another scene, after the damning Freeh reports are released, a fan with a Penn State cap stands next to a statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. His handwritten sign calls out the revered coach as a hypocrite. Tensions escalate when various tourists and onlookers seek to have their pictures taken standing next to the statue. Then, in a very controversial move, the university, in a fit of soul-searching catharsis, removes and hides the statue, though as we learned early this year, it may yet be restored to its old spot.
Most striking of all, Happy Valley returns again and again to a mural that adorns the exterior wall of a bookstore in downtown State College. This mural, which was painted by Michael Pilato, features various Penn state worthies. Looming large on the original painting are images of Paterno and retired assistant coach Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky. Then, in the fall of 2011, after a grand jury indicted Sandusky with more than forty counts of sexual abuse committed at his Second Mile athletic camp for boys, which made free use of campus athletic facilities, the filmmakers depict Pilato painting over the disgraced coach’s image.
Sandusky was later convicted of abusing ten boys over a fourteen-year period and sentenced, effectively, to life in prison. In the week following the indictment, Paterno was summarily fired by the Board of Trustees—along with the university president, a vice president, and the athletic director—at a crucial point toward the end of the season. Several days later, Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he died only a few months later. In Happy Valley, we watch as the hearse carrying Paterno’s casket processes around State College (echoes of Corpus Christi?) for several hours while hundreds of fans throng the street.
After Paterno’s death, Pilato paints a halo above Paterno’s head. But later in the film, after the Freeh report’s release, Pilato appears again in front of his mural. The report implicated Paterno and other officials with covering up abuse allegations as early as 1998. A virtually silent crowd of onlookers stares as Pilato paints the halo out of the picture. Later, the artist admits on camera that the agonizing decision about whether to paint over the halo kept him awake for several nights: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Near the end of the film, as a reconciliatory gesture, he paints a rose in the hand of the fallen but still beloved saint—an attempt to express affection for a fallen hero who, nonetheless, contributed so much to the community.
Paterno, the winningest NCAA Division I football coach of all time, was revered not only for his brilliance on the field but also as a moral, civic, and even intellectual leader in the community. He coached at Penn State for sixty-one years, forty-five of those as head coach. Former Florida State University coach Bobby Bowden, no slouch in his own right, has dubbed Paterno the greatest college football coach ever. Paterno reportedly ran his program according to the highest ethical and academic standards. He boasted a graduation rate of 80 percent; myriad players and alumni have spoken of him as a father figure; he quoted classical poets; and the Paterno family donated millions of dollars to the university. Paterno’s fall from grace was precipitous, eliciting comment even from President Barack Obama. The NCAA imposed a series of tough sanctions on the Penn State program—perhaps the most galling to fans and supporters of the program was the voiding of more than one hundred victories between 1998 and 2011.
Not surprisingly, as recriminations redounded when the horrendous scope of the Sandusky abuse was revealed, there were many efforts to situate Paterno’s relative moral culpability in not intervening to stop the abuse after he first became aware of it. I am not entering that conversation directly here. Rather, what I propose is that, when we seek to evaluate public figures, we learn to read them bifocally, that is to say, we continue to view individuals as moral agents in their own right while also acknowledging that their celebrity image might operate at a broader corporate level as a principality or power. In this regard, Stringfellow’s theology comes to our aid.
In a series of writings spanning the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, Stringfellow articulated a political theology that demythologized biblical language concerning the principalities and powers and sought to retool these concepts for contemporary sociopolitical critique and activist engagement. In these efforts, he made no attempt to integrate his powers theology exegetically and systematically but, rather, proceeded in a more ad hoc and dialectical fashion that sought to name and confront the non-human powers that impact and afflict human existence under the conditions of a fallen creation.
During Karl Barth’s visit to the United States in 1962, Stringfellow prodded Barth to name examples of the principalities and powers shaping contemporary North American society. Among sex, religion, money and myriad ideologies and cultural phenomena, Barth mentioned sports. The principalities and powers, Barth said, encompass human faculties that are part of God’s good creation as such but, under the conditions of the fall, have become disordered. Humankind was to be lord over these potentialities but, instead, becomes dominated by them, such that they seem to exercise a pervasive agency over human life not subject to direct human control.
Stringfellow would push Barth’s insights further and articulate a new (yet ancient) paradigm for Christian social ethics. He sought to address a lacuna in Protestant moral theology, on both the left and the right, that tended to focus on individual agency to the exclusion of a broader social analysis. Although Stringfellow did not think of the powers in supernatural terms per se, he did affirm their ontic reality and their pervasive impact upon human life. They are alive and, in some mysterious sense, independent of their human subjects. “A principality,” he explained, “whatever its particular form and variety, is a living reality, distinguishable from human and other organic life. It is not made or instituted by men, but, so with men and all creation, made by God for his own pleasure.” The principalities are part of God’s good creation, to be used for the sake of worshiping God and enjoying an authentic human life.
Stringfellow names three main classes of principalities and powers that are dominant in contemporary society: ideologies, institutions, and images. The third type is my focus here. Every person has an image that accompanies her throughout life. Ideally, that image would accurately project the individual’s identity and interests, but that is not in fact the case. Sometimes, in fact, a person can be destroyed by her image; moreover, images survive the natural life of the individual.
Stringfellow’s explorations of the principalities and powers tend to emphasize the sociopolitical dimensions of human existence more so than the cultural ones, so he does not give much sustained attention to images. Nonetheless, he does highlight the example of Marilyn Monroe. This one name bespeaks two vital entities—one, a living human being who happened to be a famous actress, and the other, an image onto which the American public projected certain values and desires. Even though the person now is dead, the image itself continues to exert an influence of its own. Stringfellow writes: “Not only have certain memories either personal or public survived the death of this person, but the name survives; the name, in fact, attaches to a reality which was given new life when the person of that name died.” Perhaps one might even say the image is even more vigorous and pervasive in the wake of the person’s death. Crucially, the figure of Monroe as “sex goddess” or “symbol of youth” is not the mere contrivance of Hollywood marketers and journalists; rather, Marilyn Monroe, in these dimensions, is truly an idol. To be sure, just how this dynamic works, just how the image emerges and develops its own life remains a bit unclear. Still, even if Stringfellow eschews any systematic metaphysical explanations for the image principality, his descriptions help elucidate phenomena that otherwise might seem to defy analysis.
This distinction between person and image emerges in a haunting, almost uncanny way in the classic ballad “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The song distinguishes the person, Norma Jean Mortenson, from the image, Marilyn Monroe—or rather, we hear that Norma Jean must sacrifice her identity to the image by changing her name and identity. The song suggests that Monroe’s “candle” (her actual mortal life) burned out before her enduring “legend” (the image). The cost of the fame and fortune borne by the individual was “loneliness,” even death. And as the lyric ruefully notes: “Even when you died. Oh, the press still hounded you,” as the reporters focused on the titillating fact that “Marilyn was found in the nude.” In the final verse of the song, we learn that the “young man in the twenty-second row,” presumably the narrator, can recognize, at any rate, that the young woman cannot be reduced to her role as sex symbol.
Nonetheless, this song betrays a common naïveté: What accounts for the origin and life force that sustains this image principality, Marilyn Monroe? She (it?) was “created” by “Hollywood,” as the lyric goes, but who or what is the agency creating the image here? Is it all really so intentional? To what extent does marketing create social reality versus responding to it? On one level, we might see “Hollywood” as a figure of speech for the complex nexus of agents involved in constructing and sustaining the image “Marilyn Monroe”: the studio, the agents, the press, the viewing public and, of course, the actress herself who must live out the role constructed for her. Still, if Stringfellow is correct, there is something more radical, more primal, more uncanny afoot here. At some level, images are not humanly constructed at all; they simply are. They are perverted forms of creation; their God-given vocation to serve humanity has been subverted. In biblical language, images are demonic. How this is even possible remains deeply enigmatic, but the effects of such demonic perversion are all too real and empirically verifiable.
Moreover, Stringfellow argues, all the principalities and powers exist in a state of fallen chaos within which they are in inextricable mutual conflict. Human beings are the victims more than the perpetrators of this warfare. The relationship between image and individual person is not benign. Whereas the image should serve the freedom and dignity of the person, in point of fact the tables are turned: the image demands to be worshiped, even unto death. Stringfellow writes,
The principality requires not only recognition and adulation as an idol from movie fans or voters or the public but also demands that the person of the same name give up his life as a person to the service and homage of the image. And when that surrender is made, the person in fact dies, though not yet physically. For at that point he is literally possessed by his own image.
And this possession, I believe, is what we observe in the case of Joe Paterno. I advert not to the man—the husband, the father, the coach, and mentor. Stringfellow was insistent that no one human being can judge another: that prerogative belongs to God alone. The question of personal morality is not the point at issue here—obviously, Paterno was a human being capable of greatness and high moral purpose. The issue is how, very often, that simply is not enough. Paterno the man is not the subject of this piece but, rather, “JoePa,” the toppled legend who inspires an angry chant on the lips of agitated undergraduates as they upend a media van and attempt to light its spilling gas on fire.
By his own account, Paterno’s biographer, Joe Posnaski, was perplexed by the incongruity between the consummate coach, on the one hand, and the furtive defender of the firm, whose negligence enabled a serial sexual predator for more than a decade. In Happy Valley, Posnaski recounts how he decided to return to State College to double check his research and his assumptions. The story was now out that Paterno in 2001 had been tipped by graduate assistant Mike McQueary that he witnessed Sandusky anally rape a ten-year-old boy in the locker room shower, that the head coach failed to report the incident to the police, and that, after waiting a full day, he only reported the matter to his superior. How could this man of such impeccable character, who wielded such power, be so woefully negligent? Was this the same man who was the subject of Posnaski’s biography?
In Stringfellonian terms, one might argue, without broaching the question of personal morality, that the image principality is an entity—however we might conceive of that—that acts with intentionality to preserve itself at all costs. Moreover, it is yoked to even more potent institutional principalities: the football program, the university, law enforcement agencies, and even the NCAA (which, when it threw the book at Penn State, was perhaps intent to preserve its own interests as much as those of any victims). Tragically, this meant that a coach and several university administrators negligently sacrificed the safety of children to preserve all that is encapsulated in this complex of demonic principalities aptly named as a “reverence for football.”
It does not seem much of a stretch to suggest these events shortened the coach’s life or that, at the very least, they in some way broke his spirit. Still, if idols always demand worship unto death, we might say that this cost was not exacted only at the end but, rather, much earlier, when Paterno’s public image began more and more to be seen as representing higher purposes and values. Indeed, though, recall that the principalities are legion and the Paterno family itself is counted among them (again, I am not casting aspersions on any member of the family). To counteract the stinging publicity of the Freeh report, the family commissioned its own, more exculpatory investigation and last year, Joe Paterno’s son Jay, who coached under his father, published a book seeking to restore his father’s tarnished legacy.
As the film suggests, Paterno’s truly iconic status did not really begin to develop until 1973, when he turned down a lucrative offer to lead the New England Patriots. From this point onward, he was a hero, “Saint Joe.” He was an image of perfection and, as Matt Sandusky put it, he could “do no wrong.” The irony is that by coming to represent a figure larger than life, an archetype of values from which Paterno would naturally feel alienated, it is not surprising that the revered coach would have to make sacrifices to preserve that image, at all costs. And when that process begins, the image begins to subsume its human subject. It is the beginning of the first death of Joe Paterno. Although Paterno is no longer alive, “JoePa” lives on, in the trophies, in the statue, in the mural, and in a community that seeks an image of something beyond itself.