I do not intend to take down the picture.
To do so would be to take down the Bear, unthinkable, except for the fact that Coach Bryant had flaws in his character, too, ones that would have scandalized many of his admirers. If those details had been documented during his life, Bryant, too, would have a morally muddied epitaph like Paterno’s.
The picture I intend to keep just where it is symbolizes a happier time, of men at the top of their craft, whose team uniforms were simple, needing no more adornment than tradition.
Both coaches spoke as often about molding character for life in their boys as they did about Xs and Os of strategy on the field, and they had some success: Penn State teams had the highest major college graduation rate and Alabama was second.
It is good to remember those times, even to celebrate, again, Paterno’s 414 victories, for they are also part of the story of a man’s life we tend to ignore when seized by a frenzy of disappointed love that we tear down his statue and curse any and everything he touched.
Of course, it is morally right to condemn Paterno for his part in shielding his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, who continued to use his power, his disgusting lust to abuse young boys. Today, “Jo Pa” sticks in the throat.
But we should not forget our role in the tragedy. We do love our heroes, our warrior-protectors whose winning exploits move us to lift them higher and higher, but if they fail or disappoint, we come after them as an inflamed mob.
It is instructive to listen to the philosopher who invented the concept “hero,” Thomas Carlyle, in his 19th-century writings:
“We all love great men; love, venerate and bow down submissive before great men: nay can we honestly bow down to anything else? Ah, does not every true man feel that he is himself made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him . . .?
“And to me it is very cheering to consider that no skeptical logic, or general triviality, insincerity and aridity of any Time and its influences can destroy this noble inborn loyalty and worship that is in man.
“In times of unbelief, which soon have to become times of revolution, much down-rushing, sorrowful decay and ruin is visible to everybody.” He referred to the worship of one’s fellow man as a “jungle of delusions.”
We enjoy deluding ourselves. We surround our presidents with the trappings of a king; honor guards in special uniforms, and everywhere he goes there are ruffles and flourishes and the musical salute, “Hail to the Chief.”
When an American president or American athletes achieve victories on foreign soil, we are elevated by their success; they are U.S. writ large. But in failure and disgrace, we snarl and tear at the very images of our former heroes, defile even their memory.
Only entertainers such as the King, Elvis Presley, are exempt from fans becoming disappointed mobs who retain what cheered Carlyle, “the noble inborn loyalty and worship that is in man.”
In my soon-to-be-released memoir, In Love With Defeat, I wrote of Elvis, “Only when his death in 1977 set off a shock wave of grief did I begin to understand the tragedy and the enduring power of the man. Elvis’s fans don’t see the fat man who died alone in his bathroom a generation ago. They only see the slim, hip-pumping boy with the glistening pompadour, heavy sideburns and outrageous clothes who was both vaguely threatening and vulnerable.
“They crowned him King: sovereign in the kingdom of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and pop. They’ve made him into a memorial, a statue, totem, icon that has rendered the real man-boy unknowable. But the image fills a need in those who have to remember him a certain way. As always, those to whom we give symbolic power tell more about us than they do the object of our love or scorn.”
Each of us has to decide how we should and will react to the Paterno scandal. I am saddened by the death of something noble within his admirers, and so I will keep the picture and remember two large men for what they were.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.