Sports are supposed to be fun. We invest ourselves in our teams, live vicariously through the players, and generally enjoy our experience as fans. But every so often, a watershed moment comes along that snaps us out of the fantasy world that we construct around our favorite sports. These moments make us reevaluate how we connect with the athletes that we follow and how we view them as people. For many baseball fans, the day Sports Illustrated released the first huge expose on steroids was one such moment, a revelation that caused many to reevaluate the players that they had come to admire. The events at Penn State over the last 10 days, and truly over the last 15 years, serve as another clarion call to sports fans around the world, begging us to pause and take stock of how we lionize those who play or run the games we love.
Jerry Sandusky was a pillar of the Penn State community. A defensive coach who was once the heir apparent to Joe Paterno, he was the driving force behind Linebacker U, an identity that defined Penn State football for a long time. He also ran a large charity for children and young adults, dedicating countless hours to providing disadvantaged children with important services. Sandusky was well respected in the community and was widely regarded as an integral member of the Penn State family. Meanwhile, Joe Paterno was practically God at State College. When a number of school officials showed up at his door and asked him to retire in 2004, he respectfully refused, showed them out, and kept coaching. A local institution who has been at Penn State for 60 years, he was very much a benevolent ruler who was loved by most in that little slice of Pennsylvania. He was well know for being a good man, a strong educator, and a fierce competitor.
These are some, but not all, of the men at the center of the most heinous sports scandal of our time. Sandusky is alleged to have molested or raped at least eight children, with rumors suggesting the actual number is likely closer to 20. Later, Paterno was informed by underlings that something untoward was occurring, and he allowed the whole issue to be swept under the rug on his watch. While Paterno’s was clearly a much lesser offense, it showed a startling lack of judgment and fortitude from a man who was revered as being a pillar of integrity. These are terrible and despicable actions taken by individuals who many assumed to be excellent citizens and fine leaders of men. The question I am left with as a sports fan is, how do we connect with players and leaders in the future? How can we observe this atrocity and just return to lionizing players as being courageous or moral when we really know little about them? How can we watch the Penn State fanbase have the rug pulled out from under them and then just get right back on that rug ourselves?
It’s an obvious lesson that we can take from this atrocious story: we don’t really know athletes and coaches at all. We view them through the prism of the media, sitting a distance while journalists try to coax illuminating answers from largely unwilling subjects. We watch them answer a few questions and then think we can understand what motivates them. But there is a large distance between our couches and their minds, and our picture of their personal attributes is flawed and incomplete at best.
The first instinct upon coming to this realization is to swear off connecting with athletes at all, to treat them as automatons who perform athletic feats to entertain us. But that approach steals some of the joy from sports as well. Our love for stories built around heroes and villains is an integral thread in the tapestry of sports, and distancing ourselves from making character judgments of players would eviscerate that element of fandom.
Instead, there’s an important line we can draw between admiring someone for what he does and making a full scale character judgment as to what kind of person he is. Everyone is entitled to have their sports heroes, but it’s important not to diminish or neglect that “sports” qualifier and simply revere people we barely know as true heroes. We can admire actions that they take, venerate their performance on the field and their charitable acts, but as the PSU scandal illustrates, it is dangerous to lionize them. When we do, we can end up being duped into thinking they can do no wrong, and may find ourselves defending them for actions that have no justification. As fans, true hero worship will often end up with us get burned, because athletes and coaches are human beings, subject to the same flaws and weaknesses that we all have. Holding up a man as a paragon of greatness and then finding out that it was all an illusion saps the joy from fandom, destroying the happiness that sports should be about. It might just be better to avoid holding them up as role models to begin with.