Nov 18, 2011

On a Pedestal

Apparently, in light of the horrific events unfolding at Penn State, there is a movement to pull down the Joe Paterno statue that currently stands outside of Beaver Stadium.  The school itself has tried to distance itself from Paterno in light of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, his former Defensive Coordinator.  I spelled out my opinions about the scandal in this sure to be Pulitzer Prize nominated post.  I went so far as to say they should fire the entire coaching staff and shutter the program until they find out what exactly is going on.  However, something just seems wrong about pulling down the statue.  I think the problem is that there ever was a statue in the first place.

It would be hard to refute the statement that Joe Paterno is one of the greatest coaches in all of American sports history.  He has the most victories in NCAA Division I football history - more than Bear Bryant or Bobby Bowden or Ron Zook.  He's won two national titles.  What is more impressive is that he did it at Penn State - a former agricultural school in Nowhere, Pennsylvania.  And, by most accounts, he did it well and clean.  The school was never hit with investigations and probations.  They kept high academic standards.  Paterno did all of that.  He was the architect of Penn State football.  And it wasn't just the program.  He was one of the first coaches to take advantage of a corporate sponsorship.  Since players cannot be paid to wear a company's products, national shoe brands will pay the coach instead.  Penn State signed with Nike years ago - back before they got heavily into creating superhero costumes for teams like Oregon and Boise State.  He's been handsomely rewarded for that.  His time spent at Penn State has brought him a lot of money, respect, and love.  In turn, he has donated a ton of money back to the school. By all accounts, he is a good man and a good leader.  He's earned his pension and his position.

But, now things start to surface.  It is like the lid is taken off of the box and the ugliness can start to come out.  People are talking about how he was stubborn and cruel.  He clashed with the administration and basically did whatever he wanted.  He really ran the school, regardless of what anyone's title read.  Some accusations are even worse.  Former Oklahoma Sooner coach (and a guy who knows a thing or two about cheating) Barry Switzer said that there is no way that Paterno did not know what was going on with Sandusky.  He said that at a big time college sports program like that, people don't get access without the coach knowing.  Other people have said that Sandusky's "retirement" was actually a penalty for the original accusation years ago.  And it is widely believed that Paterno did not do everything he could have to protect the kids involved.

I think that the shock of the situation has been so great that no one really knows what to do.  The school is trying to save its reputation.  Alumni and fans are trying to make sense of things and know if it is still okay to love Penn State and love this man.  So you have wild uncontrolled emotions flailing everywhere. This confusion has been brilliantly documents by Michael Weinreb over at  He is an alum of Penn State and has been personally wrestling with all of this and documenting it.  Brilliant articles, all of them.  The big struggle is what to do with this man who has become an icon of greatness to the school - and really all of sports.  How do these accusations affect the view of this man?  He didn't physically do anything to these kids - but his inaction allowed someone else to.  The program he built did not funnel kids to a predator - but the program he created gave the man ways to funnel kids to himself.  The culture he fostered did not force people to have an unhealthy view of him and other coaches - but the culture certainly lent itself to it, and he never discouraged it.

The problem is not so much with Joe Paterno.  It is with putting any human being in a place reserved for a god.  Really, that is what a pedestal is for.  It is putting something or someone in a place higher than others.  It is allowing us to revere and almost worship them as something greater than just the average man.  Look at the statues around you.  They are erected to recognize, honor, and inspire greatness.  Sports teams will frequently put up statues outside of their stadium to tap into a sense of loyalty and team spirit.  FSU has Chief Osceola on Renegade with a spear and an unquenchable flame with a huge sign reading "UNCONQUERED."  UCF has an awesome statue of a knight on a horse.  The Jacksonville Jaguars have a roaring jaguar.  The Bucs have their end zone pirate ship.  And Penn State had Paterno.

We have monuments throughout our country.  There is the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore.  We see people that have done great things and inspired us and put them up on a pedestal.  You don't put some useless dork up on a statue.  (Well, unless you are the city of West Palm Beach.  They had some random soldier and then that got replaced by a guy who designed a disastrous development project.  The only reason he deserved a statue was to give people something to aim the tomatoes at.)  However, there is a great danger in this.  Putting anyone up on that level is begging for problems.

These people, as great as they are, are still human.  They are flawed.  We may be drawn to their great qualities.  But there still is darkness housed in that same person.  We lift that person up and slowly focus only on the good things.  When something negative or unseemly surfaces, we are floored.  It doesn't match the refined and polished view that has been accepted.  Our faith is shaken.  And then we have to go through the messy process of tearing down the pedestal that never should have been constructed.  I see it happen in churches frequently.  Pastors are put up on a metaphorical pedestal.  People listen to their sermons and assume that this person has it all figured out.  They must know everything and being living completely blameless lives.  Many pastors foster this by never talking about anything negative in their own lives unless they have already overcome it.  Then, when the human element starts to come out - when that church member becomes more involved or some of the stuff said in staff meetings leak out - members are devastated that this man is just . . . a man.

We started attending a new church recently.  We loved our old church here, but it was smaller and the kids are at the age where they really needed an expanded children's ministry.  It was a hard decision, but we knew it was the right one.  And we consider ourselves lucky to have two churches we love and feel connected to.  The pastor at our new church is amazing - a truly gifted speaker and leader.  The temptation is to heap too much praise on him and give him too much glory.  I can see where some people there are already doing that.  It is an easy trap to fall into with a growing, thriving church.  And I am doing my best to make sure that I always remember he is a man.  He's a gifted and talented man, but still a man.  It is so easy to do this.  We do it all the time with celebrities and political figures.  Apple fans did it with Steve Jobs - pointing out his many brilliant moves while quietly ignoring the failures (Ping?) and the ugly stuff.  I am very concerned with the horde of people who have elevated Tim Tebow to this level.  Yes, he is a good man with a strong faith and a will to win.  But he's just a man.  God forbid, what happens if he was to fail?  What would happen if we found out that he was hiding a secret?  How crushed would his fans be?  (And, conversely, what kind of sick joy would his haters experience?)

That's another problem with putting people up on pedestals.  There are always going to be people who just love to knock them off.  There will always be cynics, people who refuse to believe anyone should be so loved and honored.  It goes beyond keeping things in perspective and approaching actively wanting to see this person fail.  I have seen it happen with Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, even President Obama.  There is this group of people that (basically) worships these guys and then another group that really hates these guys.  They want to see them fall on their face and laugh if and when it happens.  (Colin Cowherd, shoot, every sportswriter, I'm looking at you.)

Putting people up on a pedestal is a dangerous thing.  It invites disappointment.  No person can live up to that kind of pressure and scrutiny.  No one is that good.  All of us have shortcomings.  And even if they are minor, when someone is elevated in such a way, those shortcomings are magnified.  What could just be something we put up with Weird Uncle Larry becomes devastating when it is done by Urban Meyer.  We expect more from these people - they shouldn't be susceptible to the same things as us.  But that is unrealistic.  We shouldn't have to tear down pedestals because we shouldn't put people up there in the first place.  That isn't to say that we never look up to someone or admire anyone.  We shouldn't go through life negative and critical, assuming every person deep down inside sucks and will disappoint us.  But we should gain inspiration while remaining realistic.  And if someone tries to put us up in a places we don't belong, we shouldn't allow it.  I doubt anyone will ever put me in that place because I am the first to say that I am a messed up person that will only serve to let you down.  I am not going to hide my flaws because I know they will come out anyway - and probably at the most inopportune time.  If you find someone you really want to enshrine, learn from them and admire them.  But then pray - not TO them, but FOR them.  The pressures they face are extreme.  Not only do they have to make the right choices for themselves, but also for the people all around them looking up to them.  And if they do slip up, you won't have to pull them down from their perch.  They never will have been on one in the first place.

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