Bella figura can mean many things, but at its core is presentation...how one looks, how one comports oneself, how one makes the best possible impression in all things. That such a concept is hardwired into the Italian psyche is no surprise: what else could be expected from a country that's been creating beauty for centuries? Beauty is revered in Italy, whether expressed grandly through art and architecture, or more simply by the perfect cut of a suit. -- EyeItalia.com
For decades those Penn State Nittany Lions sure looked good in those perfect suits. Few Italian artists ever pieced together a life's work that moved more people than Joe Paterno's football program.
In a rotten sport built on a lie -- that the game is all about "student-athletes" and not fattening the bottom lines of massive institutions on the backs of free labor -- Joe Paterno's program stood aloofly apart. JoePa's boys were not the thugs at Miami or Oklahoma, the semi-pros at USC and SMU, or the blunted-out stoners at UT.
Paterno once told a reporter that he couldn't retire and leave the sport to sleazebags like Barry Switzer, Jackie Sherill and Bobby Bowden. He and he alone stood as a paragon. His kids mostly stayed out of trouble. They made their grades. They graduated, and most importantly of all, they did all that and won conference titles and national championships.
The Nittany Lions were the good guys. Their home was called Happy Valley, and they even wore white. Unless your judgment was clouded by regional rivalry, in a game that would feature Penn State against some other random team, most college football fans rooted for Penn State. The stadium looked majestic in the gloaming of November coal-country evenings. The team looked cool in their blinding white jerseys and helmets and throwback black cleats.
And there was JoePa on the sidelines in his tie and tinted glasses, as retro today as Tom Landry was in his Fedora in the 1980s. It was feel-good Americana in action, big-time college football's Norman Rockwell portrait these last 40 years.
And now it looks as though the whole thing has been undermined and all-but-entirely discredited by an immense sin of staggering, knee-buckling, soul-vomiting proportions. It's hard not to draw comparisons between what has happened in Happy Valley and the sexual abuse scandals that have swirled around the Vatican these past few years.
Both institutions serve as religions, one literal, the other figurative but no less potent and even sacred to its initiates. Both the Holy Roman Church and Penn State were extremely adept at magnificent pageantry.
But tragically, when a snake appeared in their gardens, the revered leaders of both institutions chose not to cut off its head, but instead to bury it with straw and tell it to stop biting people.
Local attorney Dan Shea sees all those analogues. "In these highly ritualistic environments, there's a suspension of belief that goes on. Paterno was this mythic figure and people suspend good judgment in these kinds of situations. The Church is exhibit A."
Shea says that we saw in the years-long cover-up resulted from the "same emotionally/culturally-driven conduct that drives the [Roman Catholic] bishops."
A few years ago, Shea, a former Catholic deacon who trained in part at the University of Louvain, attempted to put Pope Benedict XVI in the dock in federal court here in Houston based on his alleged role in covering up a scandal. (We covered those efforts here, in "The Man Who Sued the Pope." )
"It's all about protecting the institution, and bella figura, keeping a good face on everything, don't make any waves," Shea continues. "That's the kind of culture you have up there in Happy Valley. Well, that Board of Trustees didn't run with bella figura, did they?" he continues, a smile audible in his voice over the phone.
Shea is immensely heartened by one key difference between Penn State and the Roman Catholic Church. Until last night, both institutions were headed by men who believed themselves to be infallible, immune to the slings and arrows of all below them, no matter how righteous the cause of those doing the slinging. Both were revered and thought, as Shea puts it, that they would "only exit the scene on their own terms or with death."
No such luck, JoePa. You are not the Pope of Happy Valley.
To Shea, not even the Pope should be the Pope. To him, if any shred of decency can be salvaged from this monstrous affair, it is this: Paterno's unceremonious dismissal should make apparent the benefits of living in a civil society.
"Nobody can fire Benedict, but they can sure as shit fire JoePa," Shea says. "Everybody in our civil system and our criminal jurisprudence is accountable somehow, some way. JoePa is accountable to the president, but the president is not the boss either, he's accountable to the Board of Trustees, and I'm sure the Board of Trustees is appointed by the governor, and the governor's elected by the people. So ultimately we're always answerable to the commonweal, one way or the other. There's some circuit to get you there." Shea says the same system of accountability holds true in most other Christian denominations. Baptists are run by the people, he says, and Methodists not only have bishops but also district superintendents who handle secular and legal matters. As for the Anglicans, even the Archbishop of Canterbury has a boss. "A lady is in charge and her name is Elizabeth," Shea says. "She can recall the Archbishop whenever she wants. The more I think about it, Henry VIII was right."
Like Paterno, the Catholic Church stands aloof from the other, ostensibly lesser, denominations. Priests answer to bishops and bishops answer to cardinals and cardinals answer to the Pope and the Pope answers to God and no man.
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"The problem with the Church is that their board of directors is the people sitting in the pews, and they're not acting," he says. "They're continuing to feed the beast. Absent structural reform, the only thing the people in the pews should be doing is giving up and walking the hell out. But they won't do it because they're still drinking the Kool-Aid."
America and the world saw the Penn State Kool-Aid drinkers in action last night, rioting in support of a coach the rest of the world has swiftly and rightly recast from saint to disgrace.
Shea believes that the Board of Trustees has taken the first step on the institution's long road back to sanity. He believes it's a shame that the Church he once dedicated his life to has not done the same.
"Reason has set in and the Board of Trustees has done what it needed to do, and I applaud them," he says. "And this scandal should really point out to Catholic people that they really have no such safeguards at the top."