Penn State Football

Penn State Scandal: What We Can Learn from Joe Paterno, Penn State's Failings

Joe Paterno's statue should be a reminder that too often sports makes coaches and others god-like figures who avoid scrutiny until terrible scandals become too big to ignore.
Joe Paterno's statue should be a reminder that too often sports makes coaches and others god-like figures who avoid scrutiny until terrible scandals become too big to ignore.Rob Carr/Getty Images
Evan BarnesContributor IIIJuly 13, 2012

College football has long created gods who tower over the sport. The Freeh Report, headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, is another reminder of danger in creating such idols as the Penn State scandal continues to shake out. Folks blatantly looked the other way or didn't report Jerry Sandusky's serial raping of young boys (via ESPN).

It’s not just a football problem. Any area where people give folks carte blanche to do whatever while looking the other way is ripe for corruption and abuse. There’s too much evidence of this to ignore, but in sports, it seems to happen way too much, and in the aftermath of Joe Paterno's fall from grace, we should take notes.

Folks turn ordinary men into gods and they have the potential to become ugly monsters. Warped in their judgment and horrifying in their fall that their supporters knowingly or unknowingly enabled.

The problem is the sports industrial complex (SIC). Fans, the media, boosters all feed into it because it’s an outlet for our passions. Money has turned the game into big business and we are all willing participants.

At some point, people have to remember that the games are sports. The game can be a religion, but once you start revering it too deeply, common sense becomes a lost commodity. How else do you explain Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley not reporting Jerry Sandusky’s molestations for over a decade? How do you explain Joe Paterno acting like he was more concerned about protecting his good name and his program?

Paterno was elevated to a deity in Pennsylvania for winning and his integrity. Yet he failed to have integrity when it really counted. He and others allowed Sandusky to skate by due to Sandusky's elevation in Penn State lore. It's shocking, and yet it happens far too often.

The danger in creating an idol isn’t in adoring it. It’s how far we go to protect it. Winning in sports leads to fame/prestige/money, and no matter what we think, most colleges will do anything to enable or protect or pursue that goal. Think about how many coaches have successful graduation rates or high character but are out of a job due to win-loss record.

People will do everything to protect the industrial complex. Why? Because their identity is wrapped in it. Just like religion, they’ve become attached to their central figure and the culture because it feels good and their genuine connections run deep. Maybe they don’t want to face the reality of what happens if that is stripped away.

The SIC is a beast that feeds on our passion and lust for sports. Penn State administrators aren’t the first or the last to place athletic passion above right vs. wrong. As long as winning is a priority and people are treated as untouchable, this will happen until eternity because integrity and accountability are forgotten.

Look at the Southern Methodist scandal. The Minnesota Gophers cheating scandal. All the risks people take to recruit somebody, win games or how the rap sheets for players under a coach’s watch don’t somehow sully that coach’s reputation.

This is especially true in towns and communities where sports literally stop everything for hours. Not every fan is guilty of hero worship, but those areas are ripe for it where any sort of criticism is treated like you insulted a relative. It gets worse when administrators/decision makers get caught up in that, and their judgment gets clouded as a result.

But ask the victims of Jerry Sandusky what’s the cost of not seeing the truth. Ask the Penn State alumni and student base if rediscovering their identity after an earthquake like this was worth folks protecting the religion of football. Protect the false god and inadvertently enable the monster to roam until it’s too late.


I don’t judge folks for their passion and dedication. I admire it. I only say don’t let you passion blind you from painful truth.

If there’s anything we can taken from the Penn State scandal, it goes back to “Frankenstein." When you create something, it can escape your control and you end up partially responsible for what it does. Frankenstein created a monster; American sports creates false gods out of success. If you don't question or check those you admire often, beware seeing history repeat itself as it no doubt well.

Sports can teach us plenty of life lessons. Let’s learn as much as we can from this one because the shame of the Penn State administration should force us to examine ourselves closely as much as point fingers.

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