I DID NOT make all of my best personal choices at age 20, so I’m loath to place too much blame on the Penn State students who decided, Wednesday night, that their love for Joe Paterno was greater than their horror at the atrocities he overlooked in the football-building showers. Suffice it to say that this will probably not be one of the stories they tell their grandkids: “Yeah, I remember that night I pushed over a van because my college fired a football coach who coddled a child molester.’’
But mob mentality can overtake you when you’re college-age and possibly drunk, and when you’ve been conditioned to see your school’s football team as an extension of your personal identity - and its coach as some sort of demigod whose reflected light makes everything around you a little brighter.
The Penn State story is about hero worship, but it’s really about the last bastion of pure hero worship in this country: the kind reserved for sports. We kowtow to politicians, but we’re accustomed to seeing them battered and bruised, every potential flaw or past mistake laid bare before election day. We lionize Hollywood celebrities, but we do it in a way that feels a shade away from loathing: We cheer a spectacular rise because it creates the potential for a fall.
But sports is different: star athletes and coaches are worshiped far less critically, so long as they continue to perform on the field. In Boston, sports-radio hosts go nuts over the faintest critique of Tom Brady’s character. Across the country, forgiveness comes easily, regardless of the transgression: Michael Vick goes to jail for animal abuse, Tiger Woods shows the judgment of a gluttonous 13-year-old, and none of it stops the cheers or the endorsements.
That’s partly because great athletes’ skills are so rare, so breathtaking to watch, so easy to use as metaphors for values we hold high: Toughness, perseverance, performance under pressure. Sports equals triumph over adversity, even when that adversity is self-inflicted; one headline last week declared that Penn State players were “motivated,’’ by Paterno’s exit speech, to play hard against Nebraska this weekend.
But we also worship sports because it makes us feel included. Fans who couldn’t run a lap without collapsing of exhaustion (hand raised here) still feel that, if we cheer, we’re part of the action. We feel irrational pride of ownership when our teams win, irrational shame about losses that are completely beyond our control. The point is, we feel it together; sports is a collective activity, community glue. That’s a magnetic idea, in a country that’s often divided into distrustful camps. And it’s amplified in a college town, where the alumni money machine encourages lifelong obsession.
Even in the crazed context of Division I, Paterno stood apart, partly because of the length of his tenure, partly because he did some truly admirable things for his college and his team. He was responsible for a culture that valued academics alongside sports. He raised and donated money for a campus library. He got players to perform at their best.
And when it turned out that, off the field, he had a gaping moral blind spot, there emerged a natural impulse to blame the messenger, or the Penn State Board of Trustees. “The board started this riot by firing our coach,’’ one Penn State student told the New York Times on Wednesday. “They tarnished a legend.’’
Paterno has seemed content to play into that myth; he’s given lip service to regret while inviting still more worship. Until the board forced him out, he wasn’t going to retire until after the end-of-season tributes. When students gathered at his house on Wednesday night, he stepped outside to burnish his image again, telling the kids to “study’’ and to “pray a little bit for the victims,’’ then raising his fist in a go-Penn-State cheer.
The students who shouted, “We love you, Joe!’’ should now take his advice and study the Pennsylvania grand jury’s finding of fact in the Jerry Sandusky case. There, they can read about Paterno’s lame, ineffectual reaction to an eyewitness report of the rape of a 10-year-old boy.
Maybe that will change some minds. Maybe it won’t. Only in sports is it hard to believe that a legend can tarnish itself.