Icons R Us: Me, You and Joe Paterno

The fall of college football icon Joe Paterno continues to be America's most-watched story. Why does the chronicle of yet another fallen hero resonate with us? What does this say about the pulse of America?
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The fall of college football icon Joe Paterno continues to be America's most-watched story. Why? Why does the chronicle of yet another fallen hero resonate with us? What does it mean to us and say about the pulse of America?

There is no question that Joe Paterno achieved the American Dream. Through hard work, boldness, tenacity, and maybe even a slice of genius, he carved out fame, fortune and an amazing record of wins as the acclaimed football coach at Penn State.

America loves a winner. We believed he represented the best among us and the best about us -- an icon of American brawn and character. And then we found that to achieve and retain his stature and perhaps to protect a friend, he made a deal with the devil, sacrificing the personal safety and emotional well-being of innocent children. Maybe he thought he had too much to lose to protect those children. Maybe he rationalized that the program was more important than the individual. Or maybe dismissing a high performer was just too inconvenient. In any case, he thought wrong. He made a terrible and tragic mistake.

Do you still think, as a significant percentage of Americans do, that Paterno didn't deserve to be fired? Ask yourself this: what would he have done if his own child or grandchild was among the allegedly molested? Would he have put them in jeopardy? Then things become much more clear.

You could say we pile on when an icon falls because some part of us enjoys discovering that our heroes are really flawed humans. Maybe that's human nature. But I don't see that as fully the case here. This column endeavors to look at the world through the lens of America's shared values. When I do that, I see JoePa, as he was affectionately known, as one more icon who chose his comfort zone over the end zone, so instead of charging across the goal line with the ball held high, he tripped over the too-high value he placed on winning at all costs.

I see JoePa as yet another American Joe who forgot to balance the importance of Success and The Good Life with the moral urgency of Doing the Right Thing. He may not have stolen millions like Bernie Madoff, but, if the allegations prove true, he stole the innocence of children so he could conveniently continue his winning tradition. And he stole from people like you and me who bonded with him in an unwritten contract that exchanged admiration for something that goes beyond money: the need for heroes to represent values and principles that make us better people and ultimately a better nation.

We have seen this Joe far too often in American sports and entertainment before, and we have seen this Joe in a litany of politicians, business leaders and Wall Street super-stars. We saw this Joe in the bishops who looked the other way while priests were abusing children. In fact, we've seen so much of this Joe that it would be easy to become cynical and accept this kind of behavior as normal.

It is not normal, but it's sadly present in our culture, not just with Joe but with ordinary Americans like you and me. In the 1960s Kitty Genovese was brutally raped and murdered outside her New York City apartment while 38 on-lookers watched from their apartment windows and did nothing. In schools, 160,000 children are bullied every year as people stand by. In America, civility is in the sewer, yet most of us stand by in the interest of getting on with our lives. JoePa is just another example of the indifference or moral tradeoffs we all share.

I would like to suggest that we take a break from looking for our values embodied in icons -- a sure set-up for disappointment -- and start looking at how we can embody American values and create a country that lives its values.

Whether we consider ourselves conservative, liberal, Republican or Democrat, most Americans want an America that stands for something. We want a country that achieves while representing goodness, not the neglect of others. At the heart of it, isn't that what Occupy Wall Street is about?

I'm not saying that America is a country where everyone achieves at the same level. Not everyone can be Joe Paterno. But every Joe can notice and help. And everyone can broaden their definition of success to include limits on what we are willing to trade off.

Jimi Hendrix once said, "When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace." Maybe he had a point.

For more information on America's shared values go to www.purpleamerica.us.

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