Sunday, July 22, 2012


Much media attention in the past few weeks has been focused on the findings of an independent investigation of how Penn State officials handled suspicions of child sexual abuse by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. As you have no doubt heard, these findings (the so-called Freeh Report) detailed how head coach Joe Paterno, and a number of other Penn State officials, concealed allegations against Sandusky in order to protect the reputation of the football program and university. 

In the aftermath of this report, the school has been under increasing pressure to remove tangible signs of Paterno's legacy from the campus. The first thing they did was to paint over a halo that appeared above his head in a mural. Then, today, they removed a bronze statue of him from in front of the football stadium, moving in to "storage." They have said, however, that they do not plan to rename the library building that is named after him.

These actions, and the social pressures driving them, bring up an important topic (besides the obvious point that hiding a crime, especially one as depraved as child sexual abuse, is both morally reprehensible, and makes one complicit in the crime). While I do not want to diminish the significance of the latter point, what I find even more striking in all of this is the extent to which popular opinion of Paterno has been...extreme. 

First, the degree to which he was idolized and idealized prior to the Sandusky scandal. I mean, there was a halo over his head in a mural! I don't care who you are - none of us is a saint or angel. We're all human. We're all flawed. We do everyone a disservice when we try to turn men into demigods. We do it all the time, with athletes, coaches, movie stars, musicians...and it isn't fair to them or us. It's not fair to them because we end up holding them to unrealistic standards, and respond with undeserved anger when they (inevitably) let us down. It's not fair to us because it establishes an unrealistic ideal, against which we always fall short, thereby contributing to lowering our self-worth.

I am reminded of a useful metaphor used in AA. It draws on religious imagery, but I think the idea applies to all of us. AA's founders advised members to pray "on their knees" as a reminder that we are neither angels or gods to stand before God, nor beasts or demons to prostrate ourselves. We are in between - we are neither all good, nor all bad, but an imperfect mixture. 

I think it's important for all of us to accept imperfection in ourselves - and in each other. I'm glad they painted over Paterno's halo, because I don't think any human should be set on that kind of pedestal. However, I'm not sure I agree with removing his statue. Yes, what he did - or failed to do - is bad, and contributed to ongoing victimization of children. However, his faults do not negate or erase his achievements: he was also, indisputably, a brilliant coach, devoted to Penn State. I hope that no one ever decides that any good things I am or do no longer matter because of my failings and flaws! 

How can we move toward embracing our own, and each others' imperfections?

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