The revelations about the coach at Penn State molesting all of those boys and the lack of action taken by a number of officials over a 13 year period is devastating. Even more contradictory, is the absence of follow up action by the renowned coach of the Nittany Lions, Joe Paterno. Among all of sports icons, prior to these unfolding events, JOEPA has remained an unblemished figure, a molder of men and someone who disdained the darker side of sports.
There were no cheating scandals or recruiting violations attached to his name. My own family viewed him as someone to look up to. My son called me from Penn State, when he was going there in the 1980’s, to tell me that he had seen Paterno on campus and had actually gone up to him , said hello and Joe had responded in kind. He donated over a million dollars to the library at Penn State and was a fund raiser for many different charities.
Now the page turns, and his weak response to a very serious situation tells you something more about his legacy. In this era of constant news, the chances of an unblemished private or public life are practically nil. I can speak for no one, but myself, when I conclude that icons are made to be broken. There is something in our souls that like to emulate Abraham, in Genesis, who smashed all of the idols in his father’s home.
While we cluck and tsk tsk, we really are happier when we find out that someone who has a clean public image is found to be less than what we thought of him or her. We spend many years unearthing trash about Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa and George Washington. At the end, we find out that they were just as human as we are. Their thoughts and actions are still housed in human bodies replete with all of the doubts and dark sides as all of us.
We never seem to get that. When Charles Barkley told us that he did not want to be a role model for young children, we kind of laughed at Charles. We wanted to have him be something that he knew he was not. Fortunately for us, Charles knows himself very well and tried to tell us. In many ways, he was successful. When we see him now on TV, we realize what he was talking about.
All of this is wrapped up in expectations. We want so much to believe in something or someone. We look for idols, for mentors, to those who we can aspire to be like. We want Herman Cain to be the kind of person who can be President of the United States. We wanted Roger Clemens to be cleared of all drug charges; we wanted JOEPA to retire with an unblemished record. We also wanted them to be knocked off their high perches.
That contradiction is endemic. It is part of our own self image. We can never live up to these people and are positively disposed when they are proven to be mere humans like us.