With the events transpiring lately involving Jerry Sandusky and his heinous crimes, I felt that I would be remiss if I didn’t address at least some aspect of the situation. But I don’t want to talk about the crimes, the predatory nature of the monster or the harm he has caused to so many people. Instead, I want to focus on the penchant that this society has for idolatry, for placing ordinary people on pedestals and attributing some aspect of greatness to them. In the Sandusky affair, the personality involved is none other than the most celebrated and esteemed of citizens in State College, Pennsylvania, Joe Paterno.
I think we all can agree that Joe Paterno had a remarkable career as the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, with countless victories, championships and (more importantly) graduated students. He was named Sportsman of the Year by “Sports Illustrated” in 1986, won three coach of the year awards, was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame and has a coaching award named for him. He was even nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was Penn State football and he was that town.
And now his legacy may very well be that he was complicit in the atrocities being committed by his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Oh how the mighty have fallen. In a town as small as State College, PA, there was nothing other than college football and JoePa was worshipped as a deity. Children were named after him, buildings were erected in his honor and statutes were built in tribute to his greatness.
How silly does it look now to have revered someone who quite possibly looked the other way when Sandusky was wreaking his havoc in the name of winning college football games? Do you think those children who were named after JoePa might soon regret their name connection to this accomplice to villainy.
We see it all the time, celebrities and sports heroes who fall so mightily in scandal and misbehavior. We as a society adore these people and then act surprised when we learn that they are just as human as you or I. Because these people can act or score touchdowns or coach winning football or moonwalk we think that they are better than us and so we idolize them and fete them as being supernatural beings. But we forget that they are just human, prone to making errors that any of us would make. (I am not saying that the error in judgment that Paterno made in looking the other way is an error that any of us would have made, but the DUIs and divorces and things of that nature are not uncommon in today’s culture.)
So when I hear about such a venerated citizen as Paterno, someone who was god-like to the people of Penn State and State College, who it turns out was a flawed human being just like the rest of us, I get a weird sense of glee out of the level of depression that must be felt in learning that our heroes are imperfect. As if the devout believers in the cathedral of Paterno were so narrow-minded as to believe that gods really do exist in the human form and that that form is a college football coach. In some respects I guess I find it to be pathetic in a small way.
Now, before you go calling me hypocritical, I will explain how my personal situation is different. As many of you know, my daughter’s name is Brooklyn, named after the Brooklyn Dodgers, owing to the fact that all of us in the family are huge Dodger fans. So yes, I did name my child after an affection for a sports team. But when my wife and I were thinking of names for our daughter, I actually considered the impact naming her after some celebrity would have.
As a result of our love of the Dodgers, I was bombarded with suggestions for names, from Lasorda to Sandy to Vin to Duke. And I specifically rejected all of them because I was concerned that the same situation with Joe Paterno would happen and then I would be stuck with a child with a name that was a terrible reminder of something negative. For instance, if I named my child after Duke Snider and it was later determined that Duke was anti-Semitic, that would be disastrous!
So instead, we gave her the name of Brooklyn. The thought process was that the Brooklyn Dodgers do not exist anymore except in the form of newsreels and history books. It isn’t as if the entire Brooklyn Dodgers would be exposed as being terrorists or extremists or anarchists or any other type of –ists. The Brooklyn Dodgers exist only as memories and highlights of fantastic feats—no one can take that away from that team. Nothing that happens now could alter that grouping of ballplayers and its love for its borough. So I felt that the name of Brooklyn was pretty safe.
But to those people out there who idolize these celebrities and expect them to be infallible just because they can run really fast or are terrific actors, they really need to get a better perspective on what it means to be exceptional and worthy of adoration. Want to be a fan and root for your team and players? Be my guest. But the real heroes should be the people who have touched you directly, who have sacrificed for you and have worked hard to make you what you are. Look to your family and friends and, especially, your parents first—
Seriously—worshipping a college football coach or a television actor or a singer?