Joe Paterno and Sports as Art

Joe Paterno had come up in my research on 1926 (he was born that year) months before his role in the Sandusky scandal at Penn St. came to light. How, you might ask, does the Sandusky scandal have anything to do with a classical music podcast? Let me take a shot at answering that question. Paterno’s mishandling of the situation has negated, in some people’s eyes, everything he contributed to college football and to American culture. In light of this, it seems appropriate to offer some thoughts on the value of the major American sports.

Wynton Marsalis, for one, has rightly identified sports as art. A culture creates a form: a mutually agreed-upon and largely arbitrary system of goals, procedures, boundaries, and rules/conventions. Artists then work with this form, exploring and manipulating the possibilities it presents them with their own unique skill and style. If this is an accurate description of art, then college football is as much an art form as bebop jazz or abstract impressionist painting, and the cultural value of Joe Paterno’s work ought therefore to be recognized alongside that of Clifford Brown and Jackson Pollock.

The value of a culture’s art forms is difficult to overstate. They provide the persons of that culture with no less than something to live for. They embody our shared identity, such that understanding them is essential in coming to understand who we are, in understanding what it means (in this case) to be American. Of course there will always be casual spectators who fail to grasp these more profound meanings, whose appreciation of an art form is relatively superficial and uncomprehending. Many college football fans appear to approach the game in such a superficial way: as a venue for partying and the mindless mob mentality. Perhaps this explains why we aren’t used to thinking of sports as art forms, why we aren’t used to treating football coaches with the respect we offer ‘artists.’ But there are casual spectators in the other arts, too, whose appreciation of what they see and hear and taste is equally superficial and uncomprehending — concertgoers and art gallery patrons who are there only for social reasons. Their snobbery and pretensions shouldn’t lead us to overlook the artistic and cultural value of music or poetry or fine wine or painting; neither should rowdy football fans lead us to overlook the value of the game as an artistic form. Again, we might not be used to thinking of sports in these terms, but the beauty and meaning that tens of millions of college football fans each season discern in the game, its players and coaches — in the form, and in the artists who work with the form — indicate that our great college football coaches have been as valuable and important to American culture as our great composers.

Walter Piston was the Joe Paterno of classical music history. I think that gets it about right, in the scheme of things. So as for the Sandusky scandal, I wasn’t there and I don’t know what he knew, but even giving Paterno the benefit of the doubt it seems clear that he badly mishandled the situation. Fair enough, but that fact does not diminish his monumental contributions to American culture.

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