As I write this blog post, the American public anxiously waits for news of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s health. Reports of his death from cancer circulated widely on on-line news and social media such as Facebook earlier this evening, only to be quickly refuted by his family. If he is still alive, his famous fighting spirit conjurs some hope.* There is a strong sensitivity to the tragic dimension of this death as it follows so soon after the university administration fired him due to the Sandusky scandal that received so much media attention less than three months ago. The deep sadness that we feel reminds us that this is possibly the end of one of the greatest coaches in football (not only the winningest coach in division one football, but also the coach who cultivated the intellect and ethics of his players as well as their abilities on the field.) The tragic irony that we sense — “loss piled on tragedy” as one of my friends put it on Facebook — is that, after a shining 46 years as head coach, his death might occur immediately after the one low point and in the light of his most troubling mistake. Because of the interruption of his career by the scandal, we also feel that Paterno’s long career was not quite finished — that there was something more he might contribute to our lives.
It may seem odd to some people for me to respond to this tragedy intellectually, and it may seem odd to think of a person’s death in terms of the intellectual labor it spurs us to undertake, but I believe that this is how Paterno would want it, given that his own generosity sponsored the Paterno Family Chair in the English department held by professor of contemporary literature and cultural theory Michael Bérubé (who was a professor of mine when I was a graduate student.) As the philosopher Jacques Derrida reflected on the deaths of his colleagues in one of his last books, The Work of Mourning, the death of a friend, parent, coach, or writer one has read asks us to come to terms with our debt to them, the debt of our own existence that we owe to those who preceded us. These are the people through whom we think about our ethical relationship to the world, and in a sense our mourning is how we keep ourselves alive as we attempt to continue speaking to the dead and to our loss and to the possibility that their work will eventually be realized — a work that is always incomplete and unfinished just like any life, a work for which they have struggled, a work that they hoped, and we continue to hope, might possibly and actually come to be. Almost a year ago, I wrote blog posts about the novelist and philosopher Edourd Glissant’s death and about my own professor Marshall Grossman’s death as an occassion for reflecting on our complex relations with the world — “the totality of Relation” is Glissant’s philosophical concept for this reflection — as our own lives are constituted by these relations, not all of them positive yet nevertheless still part of who we are and who we are becoming.
Joe Paterno inspires such work, because of our debt to him and because of the work he called upon us to do. As another of my Facebook friends honored Paterno’s memory by quoting him: “Believe deep down in your heart that you are destined to do great things.” For me, this was not about football or about Penn State pride. For me, this was about Paterno’s committment to his players and to the principles of the modern university. When I was teaching at Penn State, it was well-known that the football players were always good students, and that was certainly my own experience when they were in my classes. Much of the intellectual life at Penn State was encouraged by Paterno’s financial support of the library and professors and by his moral support of its teachers. And he did this at a time when faculty felt attacked by politicians who accused us of corrupting the youth and cut the university’s budget and by the media pundits who questioned the relevance of the humanities in the twenty-first century. Paterno’s ethics and his work demonstrated to coaches across the country that it was possible to succeed both on the field and in the classroom — that a coach did not have to sacrifice one for the other. These are some examples of the complex and multifaceted “totality of Relation” (as Glissant put it) that call us to a work of mourning and to an ethical responsibility not just to act but also to think.
The scandal and Paterno’s other ethical failures over the course of his long career do not undermine this work but actually heightens its meaning and focuses attention on the question of thoughtful action. As Michael Berube suggested in his op-ed on that scandal for the New York Times, the complexities of the event demand that the public, the faculty, and the administration dialogue together openly to build upon Paterno’s legacy, take it in new directions, and address systemic problems. Likewise, the event galvanized a political response to child abuse as Penn State students thoughtfully put their ideals into action through a “Blue Out” that reminded the public to support the victims of child abuse. These are examples of the always unfinished “work of mourning” and the open-ended possibility that inheres in the “totality of Relation.”
* Addendum: I wrote the above post late last night, and this morning, around 10 a.m., it was announced that Joe Paterno passed. His family released this statement to the press. Also, Penn State graduate Tori Bosch published these thoughts on Slate.com.