Everybody Needs Something That They Think Is Perfect (Thinking Through the Penn State Situation)
One of my fondest memories of childhood was an evening I spent with my father when I was ten, watching the Penn State Nittany Lions play the Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl. This was noteworthy, in part, because I was allowed to stay up late to watch. It was important to my old-school, Midwestern father that Penn State of the nameless, vanilla jerseys, the even-more-old-school coach, and the basically-pristine reputation beat the swaggering, pelvic-thrusting, touchdown-dance-pre-meditating, mockery-of-school-making, military-fatigue-wearing Miami Hurricanes.
We sat in a darkened TV room while my mom slept. The television in the mind’s eye of my memory flickered with images of the Jerry Sandusky-led defense intercepting Vinny Testaverde on what seemed like every other pass attempt. Testaverde, it could be argued, was never the same. Penn State won that game, we turned off the television and all, at least at the moment, was right with the world of sports. Some semblance of justice had been upheld.
I didn’t grow up a Penn State fan (I grew up in Indiana), but I was one that night and I sort of remained one in the intervening years because of the memory of that great evening I spent with my dad. And I sort of remained one because I felt like Penn State, as a program, affirmed and shared some of the same things that I valued.
Now, of course, Penn State is in the news again because of the darkest of dark scandals. Google the name “Jerry Sandusky” for details of that scandal. I don’t feel the need to type them here. The same Sandusky who architected those defenses is now implicated in the saddest of situations. One of my closest friends is a pastor in the State College area, and what he described to me this morning is a reaction (ex: people speaking in hushed tones, people wanting to make it go away) normally reserved for those who are grieving in the wake of a tragedy. The national media swirls in search of a reaction. The jobs of heads-of-state (in this case the venerable Joe Pa) are called for.
Our Weird Drive to Create Heroes, Even as Christians
One of the most natural things that most of us do with teams and sports figures is to ascribe a greater degree of moral value to them than they actually deserve. For years the Penn State program was upheld (somewhat rightly) as a beacon of everything that was good in the morally-compromised, seemingly God-forsaken world of Big Time College Football. Aside from the occasional bar fight or DUI, the football program remained mostly scandal-free and boasted above-average graduation rates and almost universally-decent kids. And they never messed with their uniforms (bonus).
For the Penn State fan who has probably papered his basement with team photographs, and adorned his body for decades with officially-licensed team gear, and who has probably talked for years about how We Do Things the Right Way Here, the Sandusky situation really is an occasion for grief. The Penn State posters and officially-licensed jerseys are looked at and worn differently in light of what has recently become public.
It should be added that almost all fans do this with their programs and individual heroes. Northwestern fans say, “At least we have our academic standards,” Auburn fans tried to defend Cam Newton’s honor (and naiveté) in last year’s scandal, and even fans of USC – perhaps the most successful pro football team in the Los Angeles media market – defended Reggie Bush’s actions (in his own scandal) as the natural reaction of a talented kid and his family being exploited by a cash-cow program.
This deep-seated drive to attach nobility to and defend the programs we love is probably in some weird way proof of our creation in God’s image. We want them to be more than football players, we want them to be Symbols of Something (see: Tebow, Timothy). Tebow’s actions have been debated and defended with scary, mouth-frothing intensity by media and fans alike (and the non-Christians are even worse…okay, not really).
Nothing Good, Apart From Christ
As people ask me about the Penn State situation I’m reminded of the following, stated hopefully in the least-pious way possible:
One, I’m sad. Whenever something like this happens, it’s an occasion to put aside rooting interests and genuinely feel grieved for all of the people involved. But two, I’m reminded of something that we say a lot but I think rarely internalize and actually live: The idea that nothing good is possible apart from Christ. As proud and hopeful as Penn State football made us feel over the years, this story is an occasion to be reminded that Christ is our only comfort, and our only source of joy. It’s a chance to be reminded that God gives football and God, sometimes, in his sovereignty, takes it away.
And I think it’s an occasion to question our own tendency toward hero-worship. If we say that we worship the author and perfector of our faith, why then do we have an almost insatiable and semi-embarrassing drive to create heroes in other walks of life?
Enjoying Our Football
That said, I think we need to keep enjoying our football, but I think we need to enjoy it (like we strive to enjoy all things) with an eye toward the one who makes real joy possible (hint: it’s not Tebow).