Monday, July 23, 2012

Paterno, celebrities and heroes

There are heroes and then there are celebrities. America, unfortunately, is nation where celebrities attract most of the publicity. Prior to the 1950’s, the youth of America were taught to look up to heroes; to be inspired by their example. Such heroes were men and women of character and high moral standards. But then with the emergence of Rock and Roll in the fifties and sixties- along with the prominence of Hollywood in American culture -teenagers went from admiring heroes and respecting their elders to adoring each other. Elvis Presley and the Beatles, for instance, had a fan base of young men and women who were roughly the same age as they were.

From this era, the cult of celebrities was born. And although celebrity status is merited by real talent- whether it be musical, acting or athletic –the moral character of heroes faded into the background of American culture. But as the years passed, the public has come to learn- year by year -of the moral failings of celebrity rock stars, actors, athletes and yes, even coaches.

Enter Joe Paterno, former head coach of Penn State: It was a sad scene for some 100 to 150 onlookers at Penn State University on Sunday, July 22. The statue honoring the late coach was taken down amid much controversy over his handling of the sex abuse scandal of his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15 year period. But equally egregious was the fact that top officials at Penn State, including Paterno, did little to nothing to prevent further abuse after having learned about Sandusky’s conduct.

Louis Freeh, former FBI director, led a special task force to investigate these allegations. After an eight-month inquiry, he voiced his findings at a news conference in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 12:

"The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized…These individuals, unchecked by the Board of Trustees that did not perform its oversight duties, empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the university's facilities and affiliation with the university's prominent football program. Indeed, that continued access provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims."

Paterno just happened to have, under his belt, the most victories in college football history at 409. He is justly regarded to be among the best, if not, the best coach in college football. Some would even say that he was another George Halas; the grand daddy of the game! However, the blight on his character for being derelict while his associate coach was molesting boys- forever marring their lives –changed all of that. In fact, NCAA president Mark Emmert reduced the number of Paterno’s wins from 409 to 298. It just so happen that Joe Paterno had reached 298 victories in 1998 when Sandusky’s sexually abuse allegedly began. Now, Penn State University football is waiting to hear about what kind of penalties they are to incur from the NCAA.

Like so many gifted athletes, musicians and actors, Joe Paterno fell short where it really counted. As Mr. Freeh said, “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.” To be sure, protecting children from sexual predators is where it really mattered in his case. The glories of college football pales in comparison! And yet what really counts compared to what is of little importance is a line that is often blurred in the world of fame.

Failing to protect children is symptomatic of other common sins and vices among many (but certainly not all) celebrities. How many times have we learned about significant moral shortcomings of great athletes after their career had expired? Although marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity are sins the public barely winces at anymore, it is, nevertheless, a matter that the Lord will take up- with a great deal of interest –when we are judged by Him face to face. After all, we can be the best coach, the best football player, the best actor or the best rock star, but in the end these are nothing in comparison with being a good and faithful spouse, parent, son, daughter or sibling. If we fail in this latter department, we fail in life. As such, we will have much to answer for.

Scripture tells us that real heroism lies in being faithful to God and in loving those He has entrusted to us; be it family members or children under our care. It is in this that real greatness is to be found. The love of neighbor, one that is pleasing to God, cannot be had without first loving Him and our family. Loving humanity in the abstract is simply not possible without it. Indeed, when we love family and are willing to sacrifice for those closest to us, then our contribution to society will have enduring value; and it will certainly follow us to heaven. Then, and only then, can the words of St. James find fulfillment: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

With that said, Americans have to be careful about those men and women they anoint as worthy of admiration. Again, there are heroes and then there are celebrities.