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Joe Paterno, PSU And The Systemic Idol Worship In American Football

When it comes to the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal at Penn St., there are no life lessons to be learned, nor moral debates to employ. The depravity of covering up for a serial child rapist is not a discussion that needs to take place on news shows and sports radio. It is such an obvious violation of moral code and obligation among decent human beings that to argue it seems redundant.

The issue at hand with PSU is not whether what went on is excusable; ethical people already know that it's not. The real issue is the idol-worship that is so ingrained into these communities that criminals like Sandusky not only go unreported, but are covered up for. 

"Thou shall not worship false idols."

Most who've grown up in the U.S. have heard it before. Some may believe and practice the Ten Commandments from which it originates. Others might employ a modern interpretation unique to their own spiritual and religious beliefs. And some may never have read them at all.

But today I am struck by the magnitude of what that idea represents in our contemporary society.

This week on television we've seen young and bright students at one of the best educational facilities in this country fall victim to a false idol; an idol whose image of success, integrity, vitality and morality has been created for him rather than earned.

Joe Paterno's reputation and veneration represents the worst instincts of the sports-minded communities in this country; from the Friday night lights of high school stadiums, to the Saturday revelry on college campuses, to the Sunday tailgating at professional stadiums.

His reign over all things Penn St., and his transition from coach to mascot to icon, is based upon longevity and a grandiose exaggeration of his contributions to the establishment of Penn State and State College.The blind reverence that has been exacted him by the people of State College and the University allowed him to contribute to and perpetuate the withholding of the fact that a former employee of his was sexually assaulting and raping boys on Penn St. grounds.

Joe Paterno and his football program have, for the past 45 years, become not so much a winning tradition as the basis for State College's cultural identification. Paterno was the PSU head coach for 45 years and won them two national championships. His last was in the mid-1980's.

It may seem like blasphemy to say of the winningest NCAA football coach of all team, two championships in five decades isn't that good; in any sport. That averages out to be a championship ever 22.5 years of coaching. The Penn State community didn't enjoy any inordinate amount of success under Paterno. They enjoyed defining themselves through the mystique and tradition he represented.

Men who hold positions of such extreme and omnipotent power in any community, organization, institution or company don't attain it without the abandonment of a certain amount of moral integrity and judgment. That is why power is inherently fickle, short-lived and oft challenged.

For State College and its' university to trust a man so implicitly to be a symbol of their moral fiber and character is unforgivable. No one should ever feel they are without reproach. No should maintain their job for 45 years with just a 4.5% success rate. No one should be given that type of power, because they come to believe they are above laws and moral obligation; and they will subsequently do anything and hurt anyone to protect it. 

Everyone is looking for something to be a part of. It feels good to sit in a crowd of 100,000 other people cheering for the same thing you are. It's a sense of inclusion. It's offers a perception of worth and identity. It's also a feeling that dozens of young men will struggle to ever feel again in their lives; largely because Joe Paterno and scores of others involved in the PSU way of life valued their legacies and their game over the future of innocent children.

I know that Jerry Sandusky is the immediate and most reprehensible villain in this scandal, and he is absolutely the worst, most vile type of person. But the systemic problem - the reason he was enabled to hurt so many boys and ruin so many lives - lies in the hands of men like Joe Paterno, in institutions like the football program at Penn State University and in the blind ignorance of communities like State College.

No one in this world should be worshipped. The idolized will always abuse their power and they will always feel and act as though they are unconquerable. We can only hope that this serves as a disturbing reminder of the danger of worshipping false idols.