Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Trust and credibility: Hard-won, easily lost

Just days after a public outpouring of praise and honor for Joe Paterno's 409th victory as an FBS coach, we've seen a public spectacle of contempt and dishonor for Joe Paterno's moral failures as an FBS coach.  All of the salutes for Joe's old-fashioned virtues and the squeaky-clean football program at Penn State have died away as accusations of sexual predation by an honored assistant coach have come to light.

In today's world of the Internet, social media, blogs, paparazzi, tabloid journalism and so on, the past 20 years have been drenched with instances in which highly respected people have committed gaffes of varying severity and in consequence been vilified, fired, and disgraced.  The speed of ascent to fame and honor is often exceeded by the even more rapid pace of disgrace and downfall in today's world.  An old saying has become a routine part of the way public figures must behave:  With great opportunity comes great responsibilityMuch is expected from those to whom much has been given.  We now seem to delight in throwing our heroes down from the pedestals on which we placed them.

As someone who was molested as a young person, I can say without any qualification, that I believe sexual predators need to be prevented from having the opportunity to molest more victims, and no one should ever hesitate to call the police and report any allegations of sexual misconduct, no matter who is the alleged perpetrator.  Jerry Sandusky has yet to be convicted of any crime, however.   Joe Paterno may not be guilty of a crime, but by his own admissions, he's guilty of a moral error that would allow a sexual predator to remain free and unpunished.  It's only recently that I find myself able to admit that I was molested and raped - the shame of this remained bottled up within me and, like many victims, the shame was too great for me to speak out.  Many years can elapse between the deeds and their revelation.  Fortunately for me, I managed to overcome what was done to me and my life has turned out quite well despite this incident when I was too young to know what to do about it.  But my experience makes my emotional response to hearing about such predators pretty strong.  Make no mistake, I have nothing but the deepest possible contempt for sexual predators - these are despicable acts of violence that have nothing to do with sex, per se.  I feel no inclination toward mercy for those who commit these unspeakably abhorrent acts!

But the current spectacle of the sharks circling the Penn State campus, waiting for the inevitable firing of Joe Paterno, doesn't fill me with pride regarding our culture.  Many media people are pontificating about what they would have done, without ever having been in that situation, and without knowing precisely what was said and done in the Penn State cases.  None of us know what we would do until we're actually confronted with such a situation.  It's clear that in the court of public opinion, no "due process" is necessary.  Yes, it's easy to go along with the contempt stampede, and Joe Paterno's successes as a football coach are indeed quite irrelevant to this situation.  What Joe Paterno failed to do with the information he had about the alleged sexual predation is indeed a mistake.  It's indeed wrong to have failed to report what he knew to the police and some might even consider it criminal negligence.  But can all of the people calling for his head honestly say they've never done something morally wrong?  It isn't Joe Paterno who's accused of sexual predation, after all. 

Joe Paterno has been on a pedestal for many decades, not just because of winning (although that certainly is a big factor), but perhaps even primarily because of the apparent integrity of the Penn State football program.  No recruiting scandals, no coaches abusing the players, no payoffs by local boosters, high graduation rates, and so on.  Whether that was his goal or not, Joe Paterno was being held up as the epitome of coaching integrity just days before this scandal broke.  So when we find out that our hero was flawed by being unwilling to report the allegations of misconduct by a colleague and friend, all of those decades of integrity are instantly swept aside.  Honor and praise are instantly replaced with contempt.  It's as if all that came before had never happened, and the mighty fall with a great crash. 

I've learned that decades of trustworthy behavior mean nothing when a single act (of commission or omission) can result in the loss of trust forever.  A single mistake is obviously one too many for a legendary figure.  Our heroes are held to what might actually be an unrealistic standard, since our heroes are human beings, never truly gods.  Joe Paterno's coaching legacy is forever stained, no matter what plays out in the courts:  the real judicial courts or the court of public opinion.  Is that fair?  Absolutely not.  But fairness is a concept that has little to do with the real world, as most children learn eventually.  Much of life is not fair.  Trust and credibility must be upheld every day, without fail.  If you wish to keep trust and credibility, there can be no failure.  This is just as true for nobodies as it is for legends, but it's the downfall of legends that we seem to find so fascinating.  Fascinating enough for a blog entry, at least.

This spectacle of the fall from grace of a formerly revered public figure saddens me, not just because of the cost to the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky, but because it exemplifies the unrealistic expectations that we place on other, fallible human beings.  I know I've made mistakes - many mistakes, in fact.  And not all of them in the ignorance of my youth.