Commentary: What went on in the shadow of Penn State's image?

Penn State students poured into the streets of downtown State College, Pennsylvania, after the Penn State Board of Trustees announces the firing of University President Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno.
Penn State students poured into the streets of downtown State College, Pennsylvania, after the Penn State Board of Trustees announces the firing of University President Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno. Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/MCT

Almost universally, stories about people who have fallen from power include some comment on the individual's altered physical state. He (let's face it, the most common gender to both achieve and fall from power) looks "diminished," "bent," grayed," "weary." You pick.

I've experienced this sensation myself encountering defrocked priests, disgraced former public officials, bankrupt businessmen etc., etc. They look different.

Now, though, I begin to wonder if it's our perceptions that have changed rather than the actual appearance of the individual.

After all, it's the same person, the person who was doing those things that caused the fall from power while we looked without seeing.

Perhaps the attributes of power, fame, apparent invincibility, even sanctity made us see people as we thought they should look. What later are seen as moral failings or character flaws are mere quirks; a controlling, uncompromising temperament morphs into refusing to accept the second-rate; moral high-handedness is excused by some mysterious closer connection to the diety; accounting questions are swept away by a burgeoning bottom line.

When these people turn out to be flawed and human — as we all are — we are forced (usually) to abandon the illusory veil we've cast over them and, so, see what was always there. It can be very painful.

Perhaps that's why Penn State students rallied violently to protest the dismissal of legendary coach Joe Paterno even though stories indicated this gridiron lion had been timid at best when it came to seeking justice for boys who had allegedly been raped and molested by one of his valued associates. And perhaps — this is no justification — that's why Paterno, his athletic director, the president of the university, even the local civil authorities didn't take decisive action when they heard the same reports. They had an image of Jerry Sandusky, built through years of shared success, adulation and financial reward. Sandusky was more than one potentially flawed and predatory man, he was Penn State, its record for running a clean program, Paterno's legacy, the boosters' loyalty, Western Pennsylvania's self-image, the Penn State cash cow that filled bank accounts. Tearing off that veil would be painful indeed. So much so that people on the inside might even be able to convince themselves that maintaining the illusion was really the humane thing to do.

It makes sense as long as no one thinks seriously about the raped children.

It's sadly easy to understand as well how that could happen, even though they were real and the idols were not. The kids were, after all, small, powerless, probably almost voiceless, poor and marginal. Neither they nor their families would ever write a big check, sit in a corporate box or on the board of trustees, hold a microphone and smile into a camera. In the fantasy world of power, money and adulation they hardly exist. No wonder no one wanted to know who they were.

So it always goes when power is abused. The Penn State football machine is frighteningly like the Catholic Church: hierarchical, isolated, self-defining, defensive, male-dominated. It both chooses its own members and strictly controls access to information about its inner workings. It's not just football and religion, think Enron, Lehman Brothers, the Murdoch dynasty, the Madoffs, Jack Abramoff, J. Edgar Hoover. When the money and the PR machines are flowing it's very easy to overlook the little people who are abused, cheated and misled, whose private lives are obscenely violated.

These cultures will survive and thrive unless change is forced from the outside. It's got to be a heady, addictive drug, that adulation heaped upon powerful figures in sports, religion, politics and business. Don't expect people to give it up without help.

For those of us on the outside, it might be helpful to contemplate the psychological experiment that presents a gorilla walking through a room where several people are throwing basketballs back and forth. Viewers asked to count the number of throws focus so intently on that task that half never see the gorilla, and are deeply surprised they missed it.

For college sports, and other high profile, high reward endeavors, sometimes it might be a good idea to take our eyes off the ball, even though it could mean seeing the gorilla in the room.

We might be horrified but we shouldn't be surprised.