Hero worship is a precarious thing.
Its practitioners risk irrational denial, followed by disillusionment and depression.
And so it is that the Joe Paterno saga has prompted public feelings of anger, melancholy, even a referral to the iconic college football coach as a sort of Shakespearean tragic character. Only as an afterthought is it noted that the same scandal that brought down JoePa ended the career of the president of a university system with some 67,000 students. Graham Spanier had been a highly respected and well-paid chief executive. He is not, however, an iconic sports figure.
The Penn State sex abuse scandal is more than a handful of men who grossly mishandled an ugly situation. It is a lesson in misplaced priorities, of powerful people getting caught up in a system where the institution becomes more important than doing the right thing.
It is more than the alleged abuse of young boys at the hands of a long-time Penn State coach, as heinous as that is on its own. It is the effort of people to protect the squeaky clean reputation of a sports program that had been generally regarded as a model among the NCAA's Division I, by sweeping the mess under the carpet.
Firing Paterno and Spanier was the right thing to do. In the relatively short time since the story first broke, information that the University banned the alleged perpetrator from bringing young boys on campus was a smoking gun that was still warm. It showed that not only were people at the highest levels of University management aware of the problem, they were willing to turn a blind eye to it as long as it didn't continue within the walls of the Mount Nittany Temple.
The fall from grace of Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier is a parable of sorts, asking us to consider how the preservation of a program's reputation can ever overshadow moral obligations.
The young men who were allegedly abused by Jerry Sandusky are the obvious victims, but Sandusky and his protectors also victimized one of America's great universities, which is now being talked about only in terms of its sullied football program, rather than its outstanding educational program. And, that is the tragic irony.