It’s easy to blame just about anyone in State College, PA these days. And make no mistake, there is plenty of blame to go around. Jerry Sandusky is just the tip of the iceburg.
The line of responsibility starts in Joe Paterno’s office and reaches around to the corner to the athletic director, before continuing on towards the office of the president. It continues to snake around through the dorm rooms of rabid Penn State fans before making its way off-campus.
The blame game stretches out to the State College police, the provincial community surrounding the University, and to Nittany Lion fans across the country.
But the greatest thing about spreading all this blame is that it keeps us from looking at the most likely culprit: Ourselves.
Yes, Sandusky is the one under indictment. Yes, many around the Penn State program acted as the ultimate enablers for the sickness/sin that eventually engulfed that close-knit college community. It’s easy and convenient to point fingers towards central Pennsylvania because this keeps the fingers from pointing at us.
Joe Paterno hardly stands alone as an athletic figure that has achieved god-like status. Plenty of people around Tuscaloosa, Clemson, Eugene, Bloomington, or Gainesville lose perspective around their “heroes” that can throw or catch or tackle…or simply recruit.
The real issue at Penn State was—and still is—a total loss of perspective. It’s a loss that elevates a human being to a status of infallibility and power that is an impossible standard for any person.
The last time I checked, only one human has ever lived that was worthy of that kind of worship left this earth around 33 A.D. And he proved his worth by staying off the pedestal and getting up on a cross.
The idol-worship that we have built around successful coaches and athletes is, at times, astonishing. The media builds up the frenzy around coaches who find success. Fans will defend these icons to the bitter end and curse anyone who dares to interfere with their delusion about him/her, especially if that person is still winning.
It’s strange how the administrations at places like Indiana and Florida State are willing to point out faults when the winning shine begins to wear off the legend. But up to that point, the “leadership” at universities will forgive or even cover for just about any transgression. And even then, some fans are so blind that they simply will not see.
How foolish are we—and I am as guilty as anyone—that we can’t get past our sports fantasy to understand the reality? I can say, “He’s a great coach, but…” and it’s not a personal insult. It is simply acknowledging that coaches are human beings who have greatness and fault in them at the same time. Much like the heroes of the Bible, or politics, or entertainment. Much like ourselves.
Our problem is that we have elevated too many humans to God-like status, and we divide up our loyalties as if we were watching an episode of The Lone Ranger. Sometimes, we just have to admit that the guy in the white hat might also have a black one stashed away in a desk drawer.
And no, that doesn’t make Joe Paterno a bad guy. It just makes him what he always was—a man. Too bad that a lot of people just don’t get that.
Penn State fans did what all of us have a terrible tendency to do. They elevated a man to expectations that were far beyond his capacity. They gave unprecedented power to someone because he could get 18-21 year olds to enroll at a particular school and play a game.
Unfortunately, a long look in the mirror would reveal that we are not as far as we want to believe from doing the same thing.