Joe Paterno has been a living legend in college football for as long as I can remember. I’ve had respect for Penn State’s program for years because of him. Even when Penn State played my school, the University of Alabama, it was always hard to dislike the guy, simply because of what he stood for.
Now that legacy is in ruins. Paterno has been fired by the school where he’s still larger than life. The image he spent a lifetime building has been tarnished beyond repair. And now we have word that he’s dealing with lung cancer. It’s not the way you want to see a man of his caliber exit the public stage.
On this week’s episode of the public radio show, “This American Life,” the entire hour was devoted to what’s going on at Penn State — not the scandal itself, but the reactions of the university community and alumni. (If you’re one of the few who doesn’t know what’s gone on, you can get the background here.)
Paterno was a coach who preached the value of “doing things the right way.” He seemed to care about academics and honesty and integrity. It’s what he built his career on. In a very real sense, it was his reputation for integrity that the school has built its own image upon for close to 50 years. He was seen as a beloved god in State College, Penn., and it’s been difficult for students, fans and alumni to wrap their heads around the fact that he’s a god who failed to live up to his sterling reputation.
As I listened to the show from “This American Life,” it amazed me how much the people of the Penn State community were second-guessing so many things they had believed in. The child sex abuse scandal with a former assistant coach was bad enough, but to find out that JoePa (as he’s affectionately known) knew about the allegations nine years ago — and did nothing about them — is more than many people can take. They’re looking for excuses for Paterno. They’re hoping that maybe he didn’t really understand the allegations. They can’t believe they’ve worshiped a god with feet of clay.
But stories are starting to come out saying that Paterno hadn’t always lived up to his squeaky clean reputation in other areas. A former Penn State vice president of student affairs says that Paterno interfered with the discipline process when he had players in trouble with the school. She challenged his power and lost. She says a former school president told her, “Vicky, you’re one of the handful of people who have seen the darker side of Joe Paterno.”
There’s not a lot to say about the basics of the scandal. A former assistant coach was apparently sexually abusing young boys. Another assistant coach (a grad assistant at the time) saw the coach raping a 10-year-old boy in a shower at the athletic facility. He told Paterno and other school officials — who never went to police and never put a stop to the abuse. If the stories are true — and I believe we have the basics of the story correct at this point — there’s no way to excuse Paterno’s behavior. He was told that his employee was raping children — in the workplace, even — and he did nothing to stop it or to report the abuse to police. So it seems clear that he deserves to be blamed for his inaction.
For me, though, the really interesting thing was listening to the reactions of people who have had their worlds turned upside down by this. They’re not just upset about the victims. They’re embarrassed for their university and seem to be questioning everything they know. One man even talked about the scandal making him see his childhood memories with his father at Penn State games in a different way — simply because Paterno (and his newfound guilt) cast such a shadow over those memories.
So why are these people’s lives being turned upside down? The Penn State fans, students and alumni didn’t do anything wrong, so why are they paying such a heavy emotional price?
I’d say they did make a mistake. Their mistake was putting a man and an institution onto a pedestal. Here in Alabama, we know a thing or two about putting football coaches onto pedestals. Longtime Alabama football coach Bear Bryant is still a hero to many in this state almost 30 years after he coached his last game and died. That’s Bryant on the right with Paterno at a Penn State-Alabama game many years ago. Go to Tuscaloosa and you’ll find a number of things named for him. You’ll find a statue. You’ll even find the Bear Bryant Museum. So I understand how a man becomes a legend and attains god-like status in people’s eyes. I’m just saying that when that starts happening, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Joe Paterno is human. He’s done a tremendous amount of good for the university he loves and for many people whose lives he affected. But he’s still a fallible human being who made an unforgivable mistake. When you put your trust in the idea that someone is infallible — or that an institution is infallible — you’re eventually going to be crushed. Human beings will always fail you in some way. Institutions will always become corrupt in some way. You can’t put leaders onto pedestals, because they’re almost always going to fall off and prove how human they are.
We normally talk about governance and civil society here, and I’m finally going to bring this story back to what we talk about. If you give your complete faith and trust to a leader — whether it’s a president or party leader or movement leader — you’re setting yourself up to fail. Sometimes the leaders don’t mean what they say. Sometimes they mean what they say and simply fail. Either way, you can’t look to other humans to be your savior. You can’t put all of your faith in them. You have to take responsibility for yourself. You have to question leaders and hold them accountable. And you have to pull them down from pedestals — before they disappoint you and themselves.
Penn State University is a fine institution. It’s meant something important to hundreds of thousands of students and millions of fans over the years. The people who put Paterno and Penn State on a pedestal need to quit worshiping a person or an institution as idols. They need to realize that the values that a very fallible Paterno preached were valid and good and can still represent who they are — if they’ll accept that the principles transcend the flawed messenger.