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FIRST-PERSON: The danger of idols & lionizing the living

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) — Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Nov. 14 that former Penn State Coach Joe Paterno’s name would be removed from the conference’s championship trophy.

For the first time in its storied history, the Big Ten will feature a championship game to cap off the regular season. The trophy to be awarded to the winner of that game had been named the Stagg-Paterno Trophy, but now it will just be the Stagg Trophy, Delany said.

The story of the removal of Paterno’s name from the trophy is really just a footnote in terms of its importance in the ongoing saga of the Penn State scandal. But it is also a poignant symbolic reminder of the epic fall of Paterno in the public’s eye because of the epic fail in his leadership in private some nine years ago, and perhaps going back even further.

Nearly 20 years ago I read Paterno’s autobiography, “By the Book.” I came away from that reading with a profound respect for Paterno’s example of weaving the glamorous job of coaching college football with the honorable goal of molding young men with values rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview. As the years rolled by and “JoePa” ascended to the peak of wins and respect, I viewed his “success with honor” tradition as a beacon of hope for fans like me, who were skeptical of all the recruiting violations, booster favors and questionable academics.

Well beyond retirement age, Paterno marched into the record books with victory after victory. As the legendary coach clung to his job into his mid-80s, I began to think that the only thing that would put any stain on his legacy would be an inability to know when to hang it up.

In the midst of an uncharacteristic run of mediocrity a few years ago, the Penn State athletic director and president tried to get Paterno to step down. The game had passed him up, the critics were saying, and his win-loss record seemed to confirm those accusations. Paterno reminded his “superiors” who really called the shots at Penn State University, and he stayed on as head coach.

Through many years of winning games and impacting lives, Paterno had accrued an almost limitless reservoir of power in State College. The tragedy is that the same power he tapped to keep his job is the same power he should have flexed to bring justice to the victims of alleged child molester Jerry Sandusky.

Whether Paterno was passing the buck or overseeing a cover-up is unknown at this point. Either way, it was a gross misuse of his seemingly limitless power. His journey from successful coach to adored icon to worshipped idol placed him in rarified air. His massive misjudgment on this one issue, however, ended up being a costly mistake for him, for the university, for justice, and perhaps, for more victims.

Paterno was an idol in Pennsylvania and in much of America. Being an idol is a dangerous thing. Just look at Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson. Human beings were not created to be worshipped. The little New Testament book of 1 John ends with these words: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” We know John definitely meant to not worship idols, but one has to wonder if the Spirit was also warning us of the danger of becoming one.

Paterno’s name has been removed from the championship trophy, but what about the statue in front of Beaver Stadium in Happy Valley? I once heard it is wise to choose dead people for your heroes, because living people can still fail miserably. Sadly, we have just witnessed a monumental example of the wisdom behind that counsel.
Brett Maragni is senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel of Jacksonville, Fla. His website is www.pastorbrett.com. This column first appeared at BPSports.net

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  • Brett Maragni