Just last week I mentioned Joe Paterno in my blog post responding to Rush Limbaugh’s critique of “classical studies.” I mentioned Joe because he himself was classically-educated. There is a chapter in his autobiography entitled “Joe Knows Latin.” He even patterned his football team off the Spartan army: like the Spartans each players performs for the team, not himself; a touchdown is scored by the team, by the center as much as the quarterback. Note the jerseys and helmets–no names on the jerseys, no stars and stickers on the helmets. The Nittany Lions are Lions indeed, but Spartans too.
Most of us know of the Spartans famous stand at Thermopylae–how 300 Spartans led by king Leonidas held off the huge force of advancing Persians long enough to save the rest of Greek army that was able to retreat. Leonidas and the Spartans were all killed, dying glorious deaths. It appears now that Joe is making his last Spartan stand, though his enemies have not been invaders but but a traitor within the ranks–a traitor he was not willing to bring fully to justice. And so the king of the Spartans at Penn State is falling, but not so gloriously as we had hoped. On the spot where the Spartans died at Thermopylae there was erected a stone lion and an engraved stone that reads, “O stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, having fulfilled their orders.” What do we now make of the stone lion on the campus of Penn State, and what epigraph will we write for Joe?
I must conclude with a personal irony. I live in central Pennsylvania; two of my brothers-in-law are Penn State graduates. I consult with a classical school in State College. But I have never been to a Penn State football game. This Wednesday, however, I was offered a ticket for the first time ever (my father-in-law was given two). Over lunch on Wednesday, we made plans to go see the Nebraska game–my father-in-law will be taking my son Noah to this historic game–his first college football game ever. The Spartans will be there, but not their king.