Monday, July 16, 2012

Joltin' Joe has left and gone away

It's been awhile, but I've covered this ground before:

And if you don't want to go re-read all of that, essentially this was the root of my frustration:

I still find myself dejected over this sad state of affairs. It isn't because I just realized that there is hopelessness where I had always expected there to be hope. I think it is more that I wish to see my faith played out on that stage of public celebrity. I want to see some light shine through. I want to see some evidence in the world -- that I can point to... that I can show to others -- to say, "Here is where the Reign of God is breaking in & making a difference. Here is where the beacon on a hill is shining."

I know that Christ has forgiven us of all our sins (lowercase-"s"). But what about the (uppercase-"S") Sin problem here, while we're still on Earth? The cross has salvific power for eternity, and Scripture is witness to that. But also, the logic of the cross overcomes the problem in the here & now of the power of Satan in our lives. It's not enough to just have our record expunged. I want my heart washed clean, too.

And, so, it would be marvelous to find more examples, that are in public view, of humanity overcoming. I know some of you are still going to argue, "You're looking in the wrong place." I don't think I am. I'm just looking for that city on a hill. And I suppose my point in all this is that it's hard to find in celebrity. I want to be able to point at someone and say, "See, Christ works even THERE!"

That's a nice sentiment. But the more I've thought about it, it's a sentiment that's not completely honest. Because, whether or not I knew it at the time, I wanted to do more than point. I wanted to worship.

Worship is what we do with celebrities. Of all kinds -- whether from sports, politics, Hollywood, private enterprise, or the music industry.

Even before tabloids there was a fascination with celebrity. In the Bible, when Israel had no King, they coveted other nation's that had one. And they begged God for one. So he up & gave them what they wanted. So Israel finally had it's King.

This urge to crown Kings is at the root of some of humanity's best stories. Tell me -- how many of our ancient legends or fictional stories are a variation on this basic premise:

"ONCE- there was a great King. Who ruled with wisdom and power and justice and compassion -- all at once! And therefore, when the King was there, the land experienced a Golden Age. And everyone blossomed and we all reached our potential. The land blossomed, the arts blossomed, our relationships blossomed, civilization blossomed.

"BUT- something has taken the King away. So everything has deteriorated. Everything has fallen into disrepair & decay.

"BUT- we look for the day in which the King will come back."

(HT Tim Keller, "Jesus Our King")

How many of our stories trace these themes? Robin Hood. King Arthur. Lord of the Rings. The current Batman franchise of movies. That just off the top of my head. There are so many others. How many more?

And why is this the case? Why this fascination with Kings? Why this need to crown them? When the actual record of human kings is terrible. When you survey the landscape of history, the actual record of kings is nothing but a trail of tyranny, tragedy, and broken-ness. There's a very good reason we don't have kings any longer. We decided it was a good idea to get rid of all the kings! We've replaced nearly all of them with Democracies.

And yet still: a good story about a king has a powerful impact on us. Why?

I'm convinced now that it's because we were wired to worship. We were made to give our devotion to someone. As the ancient writer said: "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."

The problem is this: we have this culture where we are invited to misplace our worship in any number of ways. We're even honest about it. We have a TV show called "American Idol." We even call our sports heroes idols.

Sportscaster Bob Costas put it this way 17 years ago when he eulogized Mickey Mantle:

And more than that, he was a presence in our lives-a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic. Mickey often said he didn't understand it, this enduring connection and affection-for men now in their 40s and 50s, otherwise perfectly sensible, who went dry in the mouth and stammered like schoolboys in the presence of Mickey Mantle.

Maybe Mick was uncomfortable with it, not just because of his basic shyness, but because he was always too honest to regard himself as some kind of deity.

But that was never really the point. In a very different time than today, the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, said every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine, a candle always burns.

For a huge portion of my generation, Mickey Mantle was that baseball hero.'

In a time where baseball monopolized America what Judge Landis said was true. But now, with so many sports & entertainment options, boys (and even grown men) have shrines to all manner of heroes.

For generations of men in Pennsylvania, that shrine was built for JoePa. He was a great ball-coach. He represented winning, yes. But more than that. His credo was "success with honor." He championed the Penn State way. He represented doing things right, not taking short-cuts, and being people of integrity. Once, when asked when he would retire, he quipped that he would not leave the game "to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers." And those who worshiped at the feet of Paterno pumped their fist. Because Joe was their crusader. Wrestling the trophies away from those who would get down in the slop & dirty up the game we loved.

Penn State isn't unique in this way. I like the way Cecil Hurt put it:

Part of the culture which made denial possible in Happy Valley is a mentality that takes hold most tenaciously with success, one in which the football program isn't simply successful, or an asset to the community or the engine of a powerful economic machine. An attitude develops that the program is "good" (and, by extension, that most of its rivals are "bad").

All the great paeans of the great white knight Joe Paterno... Rick Reilly calls them idotic hagiography.

Hagiography: writing about the lives of saints. Beyond just putting people up on pedestals. But putting them on thrones & placing halos over their heads. When really they're just human.

You know what Saint Joe did 18 months ago when he found out that his old pal & assistant Jerry Sandusky was under investigation? When Joe could feel the noose tightening around his own neck? He did what most folks would do: he gave into instincts of self-preservation. He took Penn State University to the negotiating table and extorted them for a sweet contractual exit package. He transferred ownership of his home to his wife. Because he knew what was coming. It was like a slow motion train wreck for him. And he was shielding Sue & the rest of his family from the liability locomotive that was barreling down the tracks directly at them.

That's a far cry from the philanthropic image of Joe Paterno. The man who gave millions of dollars back to the University he worked for. Nevertheless, in the end, Joe & his sons were using whatever leverage they could to extract whatever benefits they could out of that University.

Hardly a saint. Idiotic hagiography.

Some people still have a hard time accepting the truth about Joe. After the Freeh Report was released last week, someone placed a sign at Joe Paterno's statue that read, "Remember: He was a man, not God!!!" It seems that at least one person couldn't accept that:

It seems to be a ferocious thing to step between someone & the object of their worship.

We all would be better off if we kept the sobering lessons of this tragedy in our minds. Lesson #1 being this: protect the defenseless.

But while fans with their Joe Paterno shrines have furiously been defending the man, I appreciated these words from one of Joe's best players & one of Penn State's best ambassadors-- LaVar Arrington:

"If you really think about it, how much do I really know [coach Joe Paterno]?" Arrington told the "Wetzel to Forde" radio show. "How much do we really know him? I know the coaching figure - just like with Jerry Sandusky, I knew the coaching figure. I mean, there's obvious ways of looking at this right now with 20-20 hindsight, but I didn't know the person I thought I did."

The next time you're tempted to go use all your social media powers defend the honor of Barack Obama... or Mitt Romney... or Ron Paul...

or your favorite coach... or your favorite player...

or your favorite billionaire... or your favorite writer... deeply as you may desire to offer your devotion to somebody -- as much as you may want to sit that person on the throne of your heart & place a crown on their head...

that person is just a person. How well do you really know them?

Friday, July 13, 2012

On Paterno

How ironic can names be? Consider with me:

• A man who grows up to become the General Manager of George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees... named CASHMAN

• An already famous man who becomes infamous for tweeting out a picture of his manhood... named WEINER

• A guy who runs a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi Scheme for decades, defrauding thousands of people & living off their wealth… named MADOFF

And, now-- we have a man who was a revered father figure for multiple generations of young men. Who, as it turns out, abandoned children who were in need of just such a father figure & protector. Who, as we learned in yesterday's Freeh Report, shielded a monster by acting like the father figure of a family mafia.

... named PATERNO.

The lionized leader of the Nittany Lions who, it turns out, was the definition of duplicity.

That's a lot of levels of irony. But it's no joke. Not for the victims of the man who Joe Paterno and his superiors lackeys protected.

A lot of good writers have already weighed in on Paterno. About how he was a derelict father figure. Or about how he was a a liar. Even about how Paterno's legacy now stands. An excerpt from that Dan Wetzel column:

There is no denying Paterno was a positive force in many lives, a gifted coach and motivator and, until now, a fine image for Penn State. None of that equals his shame.

The reason Paterno was able to wield such influence is the outsized value placed on college sports and the coaches who deliver those winning programs. A “pyramid of power,” Freeh described it. And anyone pointing to all the players he helped is just repeating the same pathetic concept.

Paterno did help his football players. Those men, however, were heavily recruited, talented and often highly motivated people. If they hadn’t gone to Penn State they would’ve gone to Michigan or Virginia or Notre Dame.

For decades he found a way to take top-line kids and maximize what they could do, usually by motivating them to excel at a sport they already loved. They were subject to mass adulation and had the potential to become millionaires at the professional level.

He wasn’t taking illiterate third-world children and getting them to Harvard. Almost every person Paterno positively impacted through football would have fared similarly had Penn State not even fielded a team. They just would have played elsewhere. Bo Schembechler or Lou Holtz or Bobby Bowden would’ve coached them up in football and life, just like Paterno did.

Conversely, the kids that Jerry Sandusky tricked, molested and in certain ways destroyed wouldn’t have lived the same life had Paterno done the right thing. They were attacked, out of nowhere. Without fault. Without provocation. Without the opportunity to create their own destiny.

The lives of these kids were profoundly and forever destroyed because of the actions of Sandusky, Spanier, Schultz, Curley and, yes, Joe Paterno.

There could never be enough victories, enough perfect graduation rates, enough national championships to justify that.

Joe Paterno was a great influence on men who were already likely to live great lives, men who could help him win football games.

He was a failure to those Second Mile boys who had no such talents, no such opportunity, no parade of recruiters looking to offer them scholarships. He turned his back on the very kids that were desperate for the kind of hero that Joe Paterno’s former legacy claimed he was all about.

And yet there are those who persist in saying that Joe Paterno was a man who "lived a profoundly decent life." Like Joe Posnanski, the man whose biography on Paterno will be published next month. And far be it from me to put words in Posnanski's book that the public has yet to see. But I suspect he will make mention of the lives Paterno touched that are touching others in tremendously positive ways.

Can you ignore that? You may have heard the Scriptures (1 Peter 4:8, James 5:20) that highlight the possibility of covering over a multitude of sins. But is it possible for a sin to cover over the magnitude of having “lived a profoundly decent life?”

I guess it depends on who is keeping the moral ledger. In the eyes of public opinion, I suppose the answer is 'yes.' The weight of Paterno's misdeeds is leading the media to tear his reputation asunder. "Not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark." (NYT) "Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique." (NYT) Certainly the courts will follow public opinion. There may be nothing left but a heaping crater after the civil liability lawyers get finished with Penn State. Not to mention the separate on-going investigations being conducted by the Attorney General's Office of Pennsylvania, the FBI, and the Federal Department of Education. That last one is especially frightening for a University. Making the on-going NCAA investigation look paltry by comparison.

But public opinion can be such a capricious moral judge. And if our moral compass is only as actuated as the scale of punitive damages that may be exacted, then that compass is broken.

I think Dan Wetzel artfully explains (above) how that the magnitude of these wrong-doings overwhelm the good Joe Paterno has done. But does it wipe out the good in it’s entirety? No. Because Paterno’s influence in the lives of his players persists. Players that in fact did not go to UVA or Notre Dame. Who were shaped and molded by Paterno & who are shaping and molding others with positive values. That’s what makes this so complicated.

I'll say this- the statue & shrine at Penn State University that lionizes Paterno as a “Humanitarian” has to be removed. The Freeh Report showed very clearly how PSU weighed the sentiment of being "humane." It had everything to do with how Paterno & co. weighed treating Jerry Sandusky. It had nothing to do with how Paterno & co. weighed the lives of children who had been raped. Not to mention the ones who would be raped over the next decade. Yes- the statue has to go. Has to. It mocks Penn State University (and everything that Joe said he stood for) as long as it stays up.

And even in some ways still I pity Paterno. The choices he had before him in 1998 and beyond weren’t clean. As a good buddy wrote to me, “Paterno had a right choice, but he didn’t have a nice choice.” I think that's right. Paterno didn't ask for this. He had a serious decision thrust upon him. And he made the wrong choice to cover willfully for a monster.

I just hope that you & I make better decisions if, God forbid, we’re ever faced with a right choice that’s not a nice choice.