Via Good Men Project

I read the news about Penn State with great sadness, not because I was upset about a favorite team and school losing pieces of it’s reputation, but because the story seemed all too familiar to me.

I don’t know very much about sports. I know that they make money and that they symbolize power. College sports symbolize a kind of pride in the institution, which can surpass pride in an English Department or Theater School. The reputation of a sports team can influence the reputation of the entire university. There is a great deal of pressure connected to that. I don’t know much very about Joe Paterno, either. In fact this piece is less about him, and the issues at Penn State, and more about a dynamic in human systems that I find frustrating.

I’m not surprised that people in power can sometimes fail their positions of trust and prey upon the more vulnerable of their charges.

I’m not surprised that when people in charge find out about the abuse, they sometimes cover it up, rather than deal with the issue right then and there, even though that always makes things worse.

I’m not surprised about the cognitive dissonance that occurs when these abuses come to light to the public. An anonymous writer described this beautifully in his piece “We Are?”:

We are represented, too, by the university, in everything that word implies. Mostly, at a big school like Penn State, that means athletics. Football in particular. We are, most of us, proud of our school because our school—specifically the talented young men who wear our colors on the field—gives us something to be proud of. Something to be a part of. They give us an identity. They provide a focal point around which to rally. They let us belong.

So who, or what, do I belong to now?

He continues:

I realize that this might sound absurd. I’ve tried explaining it to friends with no connection to the university, and they don’t get it. Reading this, you might not get it either. But I’ve talked to other alums, particularly those who live in or near State College, and many of us feel the same. We feel sad, and angry, and almost physically disoriented.

That’s cognitive dissonance for you. Because we are human, we want to belong, and we join groups. We belong. We feel pride and begin to identify ourselves strongly with that group, whatever it is. We seek a leaders to guide these groups with their vision, thus imbuing them with great authority and power. We place them on pedestals and lean on them, identify ourselves as much with that leader as with the group itself.

And then sometimes, something occurs that is so terrible, untenable, that we have to either deny the outside influence (It’s not that bad. Those people are lying. Think of his/her reputation.), or change our attitudes and beliefs about the group itself and our membership in it (I can’t be a member of this group, I quit. I’m changing my stance from pro to con even if I lose my friends). It’s a painful feeling, that dissonance.


What I am surprised at is that we still, after centuries of seeing how it does not work, place leaders on pedestals and then grieve when they fall. Being on a pedestal sets you up to fall.

When you are placed on a pedestal, there is nothing to do but hope you don’t fall off, hope you aren’t pushed down. But who wouldn’t want to be on a pedestal? To be praised and held above others. To be considered a legend, to be worshipped, to receive the love and hopes of those beneath you. To feel that level of power and dominance is tremendously heady, no matter the role. It’s unbearable, I would imagine, after a time. To have to be perfect. To have to win at all costs. To maintain your role as leader, healer or minister. To not be allowed to fail.

I imagine that someone in the position of a Joe Paterno would have felt immense pressure to keep the lid on any scandal that could damage Penn State. To keep enemies at bay. To keep money and wins rolling in. To stay fiercely on that pedestal and to knock away anyone or anything that could pull you down. To not fail at any cost. What an amazing exhausting place to be.

Was it worth it?

Over and over again, though, we see this cycle occur: actors, priests, senators and presidents, CEOs, football coaches.

It seems as though every year we have at least one politician caught red-handed doing the thing things he pledges to be completely against. Off the pedestal. Yet still we seek better, more moral leaders, to take their places. “This won’t happen next time.” Yet it does.

Why do we still need these pedestals? Why can’t we allow people to lead AND be human? To serve and also fail in small ways, prior to failing in the big, terrible, untenable ways?

Because we don’t want to do the work? Do we just want someone else to take that heat? Is that why we don’t stop doing it? Because it’s easier for us to put the pressure on one person, rather than all of us step up a little bit? Because we respond to dominance? Even when that dominant one is messing up really badly? Do we enjoy the fall, the tearing apart of those who we only so recently worshipped?

Worse, why do we leave people on their pedestals long after the time has come for them to step down? Why wasn’t immediate action taken in the case of Penn State? Why hide such terrible and untenable actions? Why is a reputation of a team more important than the health and well-being of children? Their faith in their leaders? Their safety at school? Stopping it in its tracks would have cost Penn State so much less than it does now.

Paterno is not innocent. We should not worry about his reputation as a legendary coach. His work remains; the legends are there. He’s done great things, but those great things have to be seen clearly now, through the light and lens of some very bad choices, and all of us, even those of us not connected to the school, have to learn to sit with that uncomfortable feeling. To have pride in the school but also look to solve the problems that have occurred.

Paterno is a fallible human being, and mistakes were made. Terrible, untenable mistakes. There should have been immediate action. There wasn’t. And why, is a good question to ask.

Can we learn to accept our leaders as being as human as we are, that maybe it would be best to have them lead on the same level as everyone else, not up on high? When will we learn that fixing the failures in a system early on is a sign of strength and leadership and that if we cover things up out of a desire to maintain this position on the pedestal, there won’t be anywhere to fall but down?


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