On Sunday, July 22, 2012, the statute of coach Joe Paterno that stood near the entrance of the Penn State university football stadium was removed and placed into storage. Rumblings that the university was considering taking down the 7-foot-tall statute of the iconic football coach began circulating shortly before the news of the release of the results of an investigative report detailing the actions of the university in relation to Jerry Sandusky. It had long been anticipated that the investigative report would reveal that Paterno, along with 3 university administrators, purposely planned not to contact the police after learning of an incident of sexual abuse against a 10-year-old boy at a university football camp committed by retired Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Ever since the news was made public regarding the allegations of sexual abuse against Jerry Sandusky, along with the role of Paterno and the university officials in covering up the sex abuse allegations, the Paterno statute has been a point of contention. Ardent supporters of Joe Paterno argued that while it is regrettable that Joe Paterno did not take active steps in reporting the allegation of sexual abuse against Sandusky to the police, this misstep should not serve as a reason to take down the Paterno statute. Those who have fought for the removal of the statute say that the statute’s very presence is an affront to Sandusky’s victims as well as all victims of sexual abuse. Allowing the statute to remain standing, they argue, would be akin to paying homage to the man whose silence opened the door for Sandusky to commit more acts of sexual abuse against boys. As I scanned the comments section of the various websites running this story, it became apparent that what bothered many of the people who left comments was the fact that a statute of Joe Paterno even existed. Most who left comments acknowledged that Penn State, like many other universities, has become wrapped up in idolizing their football programs, defying both the coaches and the players. In Penn State’s case, the deification of its football universe came at the expense of the physical and psychological well-being of boys who, through their collective silence, Paterno and university officials provided the opportunity for Sandusky to abuse.
Idolatry of this kind is nothing new. Since biblical times, stories of the idolatrous nature of man have illustrated how easily mankind can fall prey to the lure of creating a god-like image to worship. One of the most recognized biblical stories of idolatry occur in the Book of Exodus. Believing that they had been abandoned by their guide Moses, the Israelite people demanded that a god be created for them to follow. Using various trinkets and items of gold, Aaron built a golden calf for the Israelite people to worship. An object they ascribed God- like qualities to and whom they showed gratitude for delivering them from bondage, and whom they now looked towards to lead them into the promise land. And so began their decent into worshipping an inanimate object that they crafted out of their belongings, an object that they not only erroneously thanked for leading them out of captivity, but also believed would go before them in leading them to the promised land. This account, whether one personally believes it actually occurred, I believe is instructive in highlighting one idolatry’s pitfalls, worship of a fallible person and/or object. The Israelite people worshipped an object made of trinkets and gold that was destroyed by fire. Today’s golden calf’s are a bit more nuanced, created out of more than just trinkets and gold. Golden calf’s today can be our cars, money, clothes, fame, certain celebrities, or in the case of Penn State, its football program. No matter the shape or form, like the Israelite’s golden calf, today’s golden calf’s can easily be, and usually are, destroyed.
Penn State’s football program was the stuff athletic dreams are built on. Top notch coaches and top-notch players added up to a steady stream of revenue and press that the university used to its advantage to attract more students and donations. I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that thoughts of revenue, prestige, recruitment, and future donations were motivators in the decision not to immediately report Sandusky to the police. It’s terrible to contemplate that young boys were sacrificed in order to keep the mystique of the Penn State football program alive. But it’s hard not to conclude that in this case the idols of fame, prestige, money and power overshadowed the obligation of Joe Paterno and the university to protect the young boy in question from the predatory inclinations of Jerry Sandusky. While it’s easy for me to say that I wouldn’t have hesitated to report this incident to the police, I’m left analyzing what role idols play in my life. To one degree or another, we all suffer from idol worship. It is important that we not only identify the idols in our life, but that we actively seek to quell the role they play in our lives. Left unchecked, idols can darken every part of our minds and souls, sometimes leading to disastrous and tragic decisions like the one that Paterno and the university officials exercised in not reporting Sandusky to the authorities.