We worship our heroes at our own risk

July 26, 2012

By now we are all painfully aware that statues of our heroes go up a lot easier than they come down. Perhaps we should not erect statues at all. Or when we do, maybe it should be with the understanding that statues represent success, but successes are never present without accompanying failures. This is what makes us human.

And often, the bigger the success the bigger the failing.

The Greek writers of tragedy would have loved to get their mitts on the Joe Paterno story — a man blinded to the reality that sometimes the costs of winning are too great.

UCLA football coach Red Sanders is credited — if credit is the right word —with first uttering the popular sports axiom, “Winning isn’t everything; it is the only thing.”

Paterno strikes us as a man who at root would have known this wasn’t true. Yet college football has become all-consuming, whether it’s viewed from an athletic, financial or emotional standpoint.

It is easy, or at least possible, to see how human beings who are saturated in the system and awash in its money can rationalize that, while winning isn’t everything, it is certainly more important than the health and welfare of a few boys.

As the saying goes in the pros, don’t let anything touch the shield — the shield being the NFL logo. All manner of fresh hell can break out around it, but keep the battle flag above the fray; its reputation and revenues must remain unsullied.

And for better or worse, that model seems to stand the test of time. Many of us who are college football fans will shake our heads over the shame that has fallen on Penn State and Paterno, but when the first ball of the season is kicked from the tee, ESPN’s College Game Day will be there gushing with excitement, fans will pack the stadiums, bands will play and young men will swagger into end zones across the nation.

Not even the horrid nature of the crimes at Penn State will be enough to shake the foundation of college football in any significant way.

And maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe a more realistic result is an understanding on our part that college football is good, and many good people are part of the game. But no matter how good — no matter how many wins or touchdowns or titles they accumulate, no matter how many charities they support or libraries they build — people are people, and all people are in some way flawed.

We want to believe in our heroes, but it’s unrealistic to place them on pedestals and erect statues in their honor when we know that every single human being has a blemish or two.

This applies to all walks of life and all manner of men and women. It doesn’t matter if the name is Paterno, Kennedy, Carnegie, Bonds or Oedipus. Give your heart to them at your own risk, or at least with the knowledge that king-size people often have king-size flaws.

Legend has it that we are all created equal. Indeed we are, for better or worse. If we keep that in mind, we will not be so heartbroken the next time a hero falls, and we might also be a little more forgiving of our own shortcomings, knowing there’s not a person alive who doesn’t suffer from similar afflictions.

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