Learning from Joe Paterno

By Alan Bean

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Penn State University stands to lose a large chunk of the institution’s $1.8 billion endowment to the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s abusive behavior.  A scathing report issued by a group headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh alleges that Football coach Joe Paterno and other senior Penn State officials “concealed critical facts” about Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse because they feared negative publicity.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Penn State football, symbolized by the revered Joe Paterno, was such a central part of life in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that any threat to the reputation of the institution, the Nittany Lions, or the iconic coach who symbolized the university and its beloved football team was doggedly resisted.    It wasn’t just that Paterno had won two national championships; he was part of America’s love affair with college football.  Paterno pacing the sidelines was a familiar and reassuring part of Saturday afternoons for decades.  You couldn’t tell the truth about Jerry Sandusky  without making Joe Paterno look bad; you couldn’t damage Paterno’s reputation without besmirching Penn State University; and you couldn’t drag the alma mater through the mud without driving a stake through the heart of Keystone State.  Everything was connected.

Horrific child abuse was tolerated in the Roman Catholic Church for such a long, long time for precisely the same reason.  Once again, innocents are sacrificed to the glory of a time-honored institution.

Americans are hopelessly ignorant of our own history for a similar reason.  You can’t tell the truth about slavery, Jim Crow, the systematic destruction of the Native American population, racial bias in our immigration policy, the subordination of women, or the horrors of union busting (past and present) without amending (and possibly, surrendering) the inspiring mythology we have carefully woven around our exceptional, divinely-chosen nation.

How else can we explain the popularity of faux historians David Barton, a pleasant man who tells pleasant lies about the way we were.  The truth is unacceptable so we leave out all the nasty bits.  As a result, the average American has a skewed notion of how we got where are are or how we got here.

When we turn our backs on the truth, innocent children take the hit.

I am not suggesting that Penn State fans, or Roman Catholics, or David Barton fans are uniquely negligent; we are all desperate to feel good about ourselves and we are all vulnerable to the kind of group-denial on display in the upper echelons of Penn State.

It is next to impossible to stand up to a sacred mythology.  Nobody at Penn State wanted to tip the first domino.  Who can blame them?  Few in the Roman Catholic bureaucracy could handle the truth’s price tag.  There’s a name for people who mess around with popular mythologies: we call them martyrs.  History may regard them kindly, but they are rarely loved by their contemporaries.

Jerry Sandusky kept acting out his pathology until somebody had the guts to say no.  Few are willing to address the inconvenient elephant in the room, no matter how big and bulbous it may be, so long as everyone else pretends it isn’t there.

Myth-weaving and institution-building go hand-in-hand; you can’t build a nation, a church, or even a family without ignoring inconvenient facts and telling pretty lies.

So let’s not be too hard on old Joe Paterno, the long list of Catholic bishops who looked the other way, the good Germans who knew nothing about the death camps, or the Tea Party enthusiasts who trumpet the glories of an exceptional America–cherished myths die hard.

The only antidote is believing in something bigger than yourself.  If God is too subjective for our tastes, we end up worshiping a football team, or a religious culture created in our own image, or “science”, or a chosen nation, or an inerrant Bible, or the slick demagogue who tells us to be very, very afraid.

The kind of religion that brings us into the presence of a mysterious God will also force us, repeatedly and inevitably, to back away from popular culture.  Standing with God means standing alone.

2 thoughts on “Learning from Joe Paterno

  1. Standing alone if necessary. But a cadre of faithful around. “Seeing that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”

Comments are closed.