Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hero-Worship and Impunity: The Jerry Sandusky Case

Just in case you thought sodomized children might be the obvious victims in the Jerry Sandusky case, an editorial published today from the San Jose Mercury News tries to set you straight: The real tragedy of the case is that, by failing to strike the correct moral posture, Joe Paterno missed his chance to be a hero.

Here's how the editors arrive at this conclusion:

"Being told that Sandusky was seen abusing a boy in a shower, Paterno told a superior -- not the authorities as required by law -- what he had heard. . . . And went on as if it hadn't happened.

"When the revelations finally became public years later, Paterno, then 85 . . . had not the instinct to realize what he had done, to swiftly resign and apologize profusely to the victims and the families and everyone he had let down, and then fade into a chastened but still perhaps dignified retirement.

" . . . Paterno's fate is a tragedy. He probably should have retired long before the Sandusky case fell into his lap. He now passes to eternity less as a legendary coach than as that guy from Penn State who let a pedophile keep abusing kids.

"To those who knew and revered him, it will forever feel as though he was the victim. But he had the power to make it different. He could have done the right thing all those years ago and spared future victims. Or he could at least have faced up to what happened and become a champion for victims of abuse. He could have been the hero.

"That's the take away from all this, after Friday's verdicts. And the real tragedy."

In the first place, Sandusky was not seen merely "abusing" a boy in the shower; he was seen sodomizing him, which is several orders of magnitude beyond mere "abuse."

Secondly, Paterno sacrificed whatever claim he had on a "dignified retirement" the moment he knew what was going on and failed to go to the police. And this would not have been a "heroic" act, merely a necessary one. It is frankly outrageous to suggest that doing anything other than this would have been appropriate, much less heroic, especially years after being informed of the crimes.

"To those who knew and revered him [Paterno], it will forever feel as though he was the victim."

Here it's difficult to escape the conclusion that the Mercury News' editors are helping foster the very climate of hero worship that gives people like Sandusky their opportunity to victimize children in the first place. The victims were the children; Paterno doesn't count. But he made himself count in a negative way by his failure to act. This is no one's responsibility but his own.

Obviously, Sandusky should never have been allowed to be a coach, but neither should Paterno. Sandusky is a predator, Paterno a moral imbecile. Young athletes deserve better than either of these two.

Parents are now wondering, appropriately enough, how deep the moral rot runs in organized sport, and exactly what risks are entailed in letting their children participate. We should not surrender to hysteria on this count, but we should adopt a critical attitude towards the "winning forgives everything" attitude so dominant in the sports world today. Athletes and coaches are athletes and coaches, not Gods, and we should demand moral behavior of them just as we do everyone else.

The presumed impunity with which Sandusky acted arises from a culture of hero-worship in which the adored figure is presumed to be incapable of wrong. This presumption makes it easy for men like Sandusky to believe that wrong simply doesn't exist, which is undoubtedly how he continues to maintain his innocence, even as he concedes that he took showers with his victims and engaged in affectionate "horseplay," as though that would have been permissible.

The Mercury News' editors engage in apologetics when they explain - as though it were relevant - that Paterno was of a generation that simply ignored sexual predation, hoping it would go away without the need for confrontation. To wit:

"In the olden days, reports of sexual abuse prompted many, whether priests or educators or even parents, to try to wish it away, hope they were wrong about what they thought they saw or heard or were told, and to grasp at the flimsiest of excuses to tell themselves they had done their part, done the best they could, fulfilled their responsibility. That is was not really that bad. That the kids would be fine.

"This was Paterno's downfall... When the revelations finally became public years later, Paterno, then 85, being of that earlier generation, had not the instinct to realize what he had done, to swiftly resign and apologize profusely to the victims and the families and everyone he had let down . . ."

As though letting a sexual predator run riot for years constituted a mere "let down" to the victims, one that could be swiftly erased with a perfectly useless apology.

The problem here is with the attitude of the Mercury News' editors. They still appear to believe that great coaches are Divine, and so they are prepared to downplay grotesque criminal behavior in the interest of continuing the delusion that success in sports is synonymous with Godlike perfection.

But it's not.


Bay Area News Group editorial: "The tragedy of Sandusky's case is that Joe Paterno could have been a hero," Marin Independent Journal, June 23, 2012

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