By Shannon Blosser
For almost a year, we have heard of the mortifying child abuse scandal that has engulfed Penn State University’s football program.
The scandal, which was uncovered through the persistent reporting of local journalists, has destroyed what was once considered a squeaky-clean athletics program, led by its pristine leader, the late Joe Paterno.
With Jerry Sandusky’s arrest and conviction, the recently-released Freeh Report detailing Penn State’s years of covering up Sandusky’s crimes, and the NCAA’s massive sanctions against the school, the image of Penn State as a program that “gets it right” is no more. It is now the program that got it all wrong.
How did this happen? What would lead Paterno to be part of a cover-up that minimized the abuse in order to preserve a football program? This seems to be the question we are all asking in the weeks after Sandusky’s conviction and the release of the Freeh Report. There are many ways we could answer this question, but perhaps the best way is this: Paterno failed to live up to the image that he and others created and that we desired.
We looked up to the idol that was Paterno. We bought into the image that Paterno was an outstanding humanitarian who put education above athletics. We were sold on the story that Penn State was a clean program and did things “by the book.” Even if we were not fans of Penn State, we admired the way things were done in Happy Valley. We were lied to.
Indeed, we worshiped Paterno and the image he presented. Paterno isn’t the only coach to ever be worshiped by his supporters. For all the good sports brings to society, it has the propensity to create false idols of athletes and coaches, whom we end up worshiping as athletic gods. They can do no wrong in our eyes. When they do, our lives are shattered and we are left wondering how these pristine individuals failed to live up to our expectations.
Penn State isn’t the only program that is defined by a culture built upon a cult of personality. Almost every major college and professional athletics program has a culture that is filled with false idols. These cultures are built by fans who worship the athletes and coaches. In worshiping these idols, we claim that they do no wrong. My alma mater, West Virginia University, places basketball coach Bob Huggins on a pedestal. There is much to admire Huggins for, especially his care for the family of mining victims in Southern West Virginia, but we have the tendency to ignore some of his worst aspects, such as a low graduation rate at Cincinnati and leaving Kansas State after one year. Closer to home, the University of Kentucky’s basketball program, especially head coach John Calipari, is worshiped by many in the state.
Now, none of these examples are such where the culture is hiding the kind of horrible behavior as was the case at Penn State, but that’s not the point. That point is that when we worship athletes, when we place our trust in false idols, we will be disappointed. Athletes and coaches can never live up to the lofty expectations that we place to them. They will fail us.
Even more, worshiping athletes and coaches comes at a cost to our own lives. When we place athletes and coaches on a pedestal, we become too defined and invested in their wins and losses and other athletic accomplishments. Their wins become our victories. Their losses become our defeats. The game no longer is a game, but something that is distorted from the athletic competition. If our idol does not do well, we are destroyed in the depths of our being.
False idols do that to us. They take us away from what is truly important and keep us from enjoying the good things in life in the ways they were intended.
We should enjoy sports and celebrate the athletic accomplishments of those we support. However, Penn State’s scandal should be a warning and an opportunity for us to examine how we look at sports.
No athlete or coach is worthy of our worship. No athlete or coach should be our idol. They should simply be an athlete and a coach. Nothing more. Nothing less.