Reputation, Hero Worship, and their Faulty Following

I’m not a big football fan. Honestly, the fact that the majority of my roommates partake in their ‘fantasy football’ leagues gives me good reason to watch a few hours of ‘America’s sport’ and enjoy the competitive indulgence that is football. In many ways, football does make me feel at home, as a college student, as a Michigan wolverine. But today, football feels more foreign to me than it ever has.

Pennsylvania State University, Jerry Sandusky, and Joe Paterno are flooding the news. Well mostly ESPN and Sportscenter dailies. But while this coverage is indeed justified, is it targeting the right subject? As more details regarding the sex abuse scandal keep pouring in, the realities get more and more harrowing. Eye opening and jaw dropping testimonies from the victims themselves have arguably had a sizeable effect on those who knew of the crimes being committed but remained silent, at the least resulting in many moments of silence for those who were victimized by the former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

But instead of focusing on what should be done in the future to curb such sexually deviant acts from occurring again, it appears many media outlets are concerned solely with one resounding outcome of the scandal; football and its legacies.

For 46 years, Joe Paterno has been leading the Penn State Nittany Lions into University Park, amassing the largest record of wins in Division 1 college football history and fostering a legendary football program with a revered past. On November 9th, 2011, Paterno was fired along with other members of the football coaching staff amid public pressure on the governing body of the University.

Priorities Gone Wrong

Rather than taking a backseat, Paterno became the paramount topic of the sexual abuse scandal. While many discussed his tarnished football legacy, others were puzzled by his inability to report to able authorities the misdeeds that were happening in his house, the institution of the Penn State football program. Ultimately, the matter of the reputation of a university and its athletic department came full circle.

It can be regarded as public knowledge that many schools depend on their athletic programs for alumni support, revenue, and consistent in-flows of prospective students. But the emphasis of athletics over education has many critics in frenzy. As Tufts Professor Sol Gittleman noted, “You’re making a deal with the devil…its big-time money, and these programs become larger than life”. Allen Sack, another critic of major college sports, agreed. “This happened because Penn State decided it was going to put football above all the cherished values of higher education…in this instance, the entire university bowed to football’’ Where Football Rules.

             “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due”                              

                                                                                          –Ralph Waldo Emerson

This prominence of reputation and recognition is in opposition to Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance in almost every aspect. As individuals, we must not look to others in order to maintain where our place is in society and how our faculties should guide us. However, the Penn State football program, even the university itself, is not an individual institution. Many contend that it is a ‘family’. But as Emerson wisely pointed out, “It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. Is not a man better than a town?” (Self-Reliance, 38). We should not view the governing board at Penn State, Joe Paterno, the athletic director Tim Curley, and others who failed to report the atrocious crimes of Jerry Sandusky as selfish silence that was meant to retain their images, but rather, the image of the University. “The reputation for integrity that Paterno and Penn State developed has been a shield of sorts. It deflected criticism and potential problems.” Veil of Secrecy. With the fallout of such a prestigious program and its standard forbearer, heavy consequences were a definite possibility.

Nevertheless, the outcome of this silence led to the smearing of not only a university’s reputation but also its integrity as a whole. Those who kept the child abuse a secret failed not only themselves as individuals but as members of the greater Penn State community. They did not act on their own private perceptions of decency. “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due” (28). The involuntary perception here is that of one’s morality and ethics, which in conjunction with conventional morality is not only appropriate, but necessary. Emerson knew that at times conventional morality could be faulty, but here I argue that it embodies his doctrine of ‘trusting thyself’. The board of trustees and administration at Penn State likely understood the implications a sexual abuse scandal would have on their revenue stream and legacy. In the end, they embraced what Emerson knew inhibited trust in oneself; a recognizable consistency- “a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them” (24). To the administration and to many others who recognized the legendary status of Paterno’s tenure as coach, acknowledgment of such a shameful crime was an unbearable option that would sully the school’s name for years to come; the secret had to be kept at any cost.

At the same time, it is this ‘hero worship’ for Paterno that has done even greater damage to the University’s image. The fact that students rioted because of his dismissal as coach, and that the university still held its game this past weekend against Nebraska, with students cheering wildly and wearing blue shirts to honor Paterno’s memory as coach, is an even more shocking manifestation of this lack of individualism. A ‘moment of silence’ for the victims of sexual abuse to me does not justify such hypocrisy. Emerson would cringe at the sight of individuals eulogizing a man who’s history, while seen as prophetic, is morally unsound. “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (22). I think some of these students may need a new constitution to adhere to.

According to Emerson, the self-reliance of man depends upon his ability to take the ‘high road’ and stand apart and oftentimes above group norms and opinions. Paterno’s actions were not entirely lacking propriety or good judgment. His actions were merely insufficient. That he himself was not incited to greater action suggests either timidity in dealing with the matter or merely dismissing its importance. When someone has knowledge that a member of his or her staff is engaging in such repugnant behaviors and that staff member is still part of the team is confirmation of the dangers associated with the group mentality so characteristic of sports and teams in general. That the student body rallied so heartily for him unfortunately is further acknowledgment that the student body is an extension of the sports team mentality.

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater” (21).

Penn State exists as a society just as many other colleges and universities in the nation do so. For the protection of its society, individuals did not come forward for the sake of reputation. In the end, it is this stubbornness that led to this society’s downfall and apparent fall from grace.

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9 Responses to Reputation, Hero Worship, and their Faulty Following

  1. kaschuma says:

    I agree with your view that priorities have been too out of place. Far too much we place legacies and traditions before morals. However I disagree with your statements on hero worship. I don’t see the mini-riot that took place as a completely shameful act. My interpretation of it was more akin to students angry about the the actions taken by the coaches, not the firing of Paterno. Also as to yesterdays game, the shirts were for sexual abuse awareness. Blue is the official color for this issue, like pink is for breast cancer.

  2. drullis says:

    The issue at hand has been a well covered topic for the past week and many different takes on the matter have been heard, but with comparisons to individuality from Emerson really put the situation into a new frame. It is also refreshing to hear you talk about Penn State as an institution of higher learning. I really think the paragraph that went into detail about the very real negative possibilities of a multibillion dollar business, such as college football, and how it relates to Emerson’s quote about society as a joint-stock company. I think the most important point made is that Penn State is still a place of education. The football program and the scandal that has landed upon the university is a misfortunate event to tarnish the name of a school. The comparisons from Emerson about individuality and the dilemma of silence/holding back the scandals were done well in context from the readings. These individuals were put in a situation where holding back information and going against their own moral and principals was beneficial to the reputation as a whole to the university and more importantly the football program. These individuals always went along with what Emerson said about how people hate to disappoint others. Emerson would say that these individuals should of disappointed others and stuck with their own moral code so that the right thing could have been done even if the football program had to take a downfall for the wrongs that Sandusky committed.

  3. davehopkins2 says:

    I agree with the sentiment of this post. I feel that Emerson would perhaps have a world in which people sought University education only for their own aims, with alumni support being given only for the furthering of that purpose. Unfortunately, practice and theory almost never line up perfectly. One may question the morality and integrity of a system in which sports seem to be placed over education. However, I do not believe that the dichotomy is so polarized when it comes to donation. Many alumni donate generously to educational programs because of experiences they have had that may have involved sports. But, when one moves into the realm of the perception of a given educational institution, the educational quality of the school should be the most important consideration. These two different realms of achievement too often become intertwined. Every year, we hear Michigan State fans saying that their university is better at football, while Michigan fans say that their university has the smarter students. I think Emerson would have a world in which the name of an institution meant nothing other than what good it could do for an individual. No effort would be placed into bolstering the name or reputation for its own sake. In this world, perhaps the situation at Penn State would have played out differently, with no one looking to (allegedly) cover for anyone else due to the risk of dismaying a given football program. While all of this may sound fantastic, money continues to be the driving force of most consideration, be it scholastic or athletic. The fact remains that athletic programs draw a massive amount of money for universities. Before blind allegiance to the team changes, the team must become less profitable. Until that time, I feel the system is doomed to stay the same.

  4. dfox13 says:

    I’d like to agree with the previous comment.
    Because of Emerson’s views on recognition and looking into one’s self, he would only see universities as a place where students could find their true selves, rather than going to a school to study and seemingly worship teams, coaches, etc.
    Emerson would be in favor of the protest to wear blue at the game to support the victims. Emerson shows his yearning to stand up for others who have been taken advantage of in his anti-slavery talks. Heroes and worshipping of others is pointless and unhealthy in Emerson’s eyes, and I agree with him that looking into one’s self is the best way to find how to lead life, instead of modeling it after someone else’s life.

  5. a15haddad says:

    I am both a massive football and sports fan and the Penn State story is one of the most disturbing sports stories in my lifetime of following sports. Reading the police report the other night made me want to puke on my computer. The fact that as big an icon as Joe Paterno who was so deified for his moral strength and honor and a legendary assistant coach like Jerry Sandusky could be involved in something like this is mind-blowing and frankly makes one lose faith in any public figure who is glorified for their supposed moral fiber. Joe Paterno is literally the last coach in America who I would have expected to be involved in something like this. While I am a huge Michigan fan and root avidly against Penn State, it goes without saying that this issue completely transcends trivialities like sports fandom.

    It comes as no surprise that the sports world doesn’t fit Emerson’s model of “self-reliance”; virtually nothing about today’s globalized, uber-connected society in which college kids spend much of their day texting and posting messages on their friend’s Facebooks would be approved by Emerson. I would actually argue that the sports world represents civic republicanism on a massive scale. It is something that millions of people care deeply about and are strongly connected by. Fans show up by the thousands to collectively cheer on their teams and constantly talk to each other about their passion for sports. I would make the argument that the average American male spends far more time talking and thinking about sports than politics; I certainly do, even though I’m a political science major. What’s funny is that I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. While sports wastes a massive amount of the public’s time and productivity, it is also one of the strongest connections that people around the world have. There would be little else to connect a person in Houston, Texas to one in Shanghai, China besides their passion for the Houston Rockets, for example, or a person in the Ivory Coast to one in Australia other than that they both watched a World Cup game and can comment on each other’s posts on In a world where many people are guilty of being too individualistic and self-centered, this conduit for people to be connected to each other should be celebrated despite all of its faults.
    Lastly, here are two very sad but outstanding articles about the Penn State scandal, both courtesy of Michael Weinreb writing for (an outstanding site if you haven’t checked it out yet): and

  6. tremble53 says:

    While I completely understand the fact that you do not identify strongly with the culture of college athletics, I believe there is more to them than you give credit for. Yes I understand that these are institutions of higher learning and that we attend them for the educational value, yet few things can unite such a diverse community as does the undying love for a university. This love is largely displayed through pride in the athletics programs. This is not the only way but it is the most prominent. The teams carry the banner of your university onto or into the field/ice/court/track/water etc. every week. Beyond this though there are few things that can help such a large community take a step back and put aside the problems of the day and enjoy themselves for a few hours. I do not want this to be construed as me saying we should forget about the victims because that is not my view at all. I am completely appalled by the situation and think that more should have been done. I do take issue however with the fact that you implied that the football game should not have been played on Saturday out of respect. The people who are most vested in this game, namely the players and fans, had no involvement in this scandal and were completely crushed by it. Being from the east coast I know plenty of Penn State alums and current students and they were devastated and emotionally drained. Penn State, like Michigan for all of us, is more than just an alma mater; It represents a piece of you, something you wear proudly for the rest of your life. For these students, both current and former, their banner has been significantly tarnished and that hurts a lot. So to take away the one thing at this point, the football game, that could represent the tiniest bit of normality for a large portion of them would not be right.

  7. Nicole Y says:

    I really appreciate that you give precedence to the victims in this situation. I think that is something that is often forgotten about in media reports and, as you say, people focus on the football team and its coach. I thought Emerson gave a very unique perspective to this topic as well. I think you’re totally right that he would be outraged at the lack of individuality in this situation and the worshiping of Paterno, almost as if he’s a God (which clearly Emerson would also disapprove of). I wonder what could have happened in this situation if Paterno or McCreary had taken a moment for introspection. Perhaps they would have found, within themselves, what the “right” plan of action was in this situation.

  8. brandoneinstein says:

    A15Haddad best sums up my sentiment on this situation: “The fact that as big an icon as Joe Paterno who was so deified for his moral strength and honor and a legendary assistant coach like Jerry Sandusky could be involved in something like this is mind-blowing and frankly makes one lose faith in any public figure who is glorified for their supposed moral fiber.” The problem at hand is that these universities are far more concerned about their image that they have no regard for any interference, large or small. This where the author of the post makes a great point as well. Emerson would be absolutely disgusted by Penn State’s inability to deal with the problem at hand in fear of ruining their reputation, in which would negatively influence alumni support (money), sponsorships (money), and ticket sales (even more money). Contrary to Emerson’s hopes, we live in a world where recognition and prominence is everything. Michigan football was plagued with a scandal a few years ago for the first time in its history. This “scandal” involved practices that exceeded regulatory time constraints. Ohio State was even faced with a far worse violation of NCCA rules in which players sold their memorabilia for luxury goods and services. However, not only did Jerry Sandusky violate a NCAA rule, he committed a full blown crime. And not just any petty theft, but would one could arguably consider the most disturbing and inhumane action anyone could ever subject themselves too. After reading the jury report, like A15Haddad, I felt so sick to my stomach that I couldn’t finish it. To reiterate, we live in a very unfortunate society where recognition supersedes many of our basic morals and values. #pathetic

  9. Robert Tepper says:

    This is a great post and I definitely see the connections of the situation to Emerson. Although no one will actually know why coach Joe Paterno decided not to take more action after hearing of the allegations, it is fair to speculate that he did not want to tarnish the reputation of himself, Penn State University, and the Penn State football program. So much of what’s going on in this scandal is in direct contradiction to Emerson. First of all, where was all the “self-reliance” in trying to take care of the abuse? Coach McQueary allegedly stopped in and told Paterno about it, but why didn’t he go to the authorities himself? Why did Paterno only tell the school’s athletic director. Among many other things, it seems as though most of the people involved assumed that someone else would take care of it, or even worse, that it would just go away.

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