Joe Paterno Could Have Learned From ‘Friday Night Lights’

‘Friday Night Lights’ was a TV show, not reality, but it nonetheless taught lessons from which Joe Paterno could have profited, writes Abby Wolf.

11.11.11 9:57 PM ET

When last we saw him, Coach Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights was on a field in suburban Philadelphia, realizing that his Texas mantra, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” was not going to fly with his new high-school charges, at least for the time being.

Had Friday Night Lights enjoyed a sixth season, we would have seen the Taylors experience the culture clash of their new life on the East Coast, where they landed when Tami Taylor, Coach’s powerhouse but long-suffering wife, took the position of dean of admissions at Braemore College. In suburban Philadelphia, they would have found that cowboy boots with knee-length dresses are not worn to faculty meetings and prayers are not said in the locker room.

It is most likely that Penn State football and Coach Joe Paterno would have been mentioned a few times over the course of the season. A quarterback would or would not have been recruited. Coach Taylor would or would not have caught the eye of the legendary coach. The big business of college football would or would not have put the lie to the business of high-school football, Taylor-style, where it is a training ground in strength, courage, and morality for young men.

But, having just watched all five seasons of the program in a few weeks' time, I’m finding it impossible not to transplant the Penn State horror show to Dillon, Texas.

I think Coach Taylor stays on in Dillon to lead the “superteam” made up of the best of West Dillon and East Dillon’s teams (the other-side-of-the-tracks East Dillon’s football team having been shut down after a remarkable championship season). Tami stays on at East Dillon, working alongside her beleaguered principal, and often against the interests of her husband across town.

It is Billy Riggins, climbing the assistant-coach ladder of the superteam, who sees the abuse. Perhaps the abuser is assistant coach Mac Macgill, whose previous disloyalty to Coach Taylor rendered him a rather sinister figure in the final two seasons of the show. Or perhaps it is some other assistant coach to the superteam who was installed by the malevolent boosters, and someone to whom the viewers feel no attachment at all.

Billy is compromised: if he tells Coach Taylor what he saw, the professional climb of this young father of three might come to an end. But Billy does tell Coach Taylor, understanding that one day, his own son(s) could fall prey to such a monstrous predator.

Coach tells Buddy Gerrity, restored to his position of chief booster and Taylor’s unwelcome but steadfast confidant. Buddy advises against Coach Taylor’s reporting this to the police: it’s only Billy Riggins’s account anyway. Coach Taylor vacillates: reporting this behavior to the police is the right thing to do, but there is a game on Friday.

Then Coach tells Tami, who tells him that it is the law, and that he has to report it, that he has no choice. Coach does the right thing, and makes the phone call. The Panthers lose Friday night’s game, but that’s all right. Coach says sometimes there are bigger things at stake than a game.

However, Mike McQueary—the graduate assistant who told Paterno what he saw—and Paterno did not have the luxury of being in an hour-long drama, where we tolerate misguidedness in our heroes because, after all, they are our heroes, and story arcs come to a satisfying resolution (and unsatisfying resolutions can at least move us toward the next story arc).

No, Paterno should have known instantly what he had to do: these allegations—whether they were of the horrific visual and aural scene in the shower that we have learned of in the past day or of the less graphic “fondling” acknowledged by Paterno—should have been reported to the police immediately.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.