Growing up in suburban America, music and sports were the very fabric of my life. When I wasn’t on the field playing ball you could find me with headphones on jamming some tunes. While my music of choice over the years has varied from NSYNC to Slim Shady, I have always found music as a great avenue to connect with people on a different level, to get inside their lives for three and a half minutes and try to understand what they went through. It was the same thing with sports. Watching those professional athletes play the game so gracefully yet so fiercely all at the same time really made me strive to one day be just like them. I had several athletes who I considered “role models” back in the day, with my biggest one being David Eckstein. I loved that guy because despite his below-average arm, his below-average bat, and his lack of speed or size, the man fought his way onto a Major League roster and went on to become the 2006 World Series MVP. While other kids in my classes rooted for big name players like Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds, I loved the guy who busted his butt every day and had to play every minute like it was his last, because just a couple bad games and his career was over.
As young kids we idolize these athletes and these celebrities because it gives us reason to strive for something. We see them as the ultimate destination and their stories can be our roads on how to get there. So when we learn that our roads were tarnished all along and that they really didn’t lead to the place we thought they would, we feel disappointed, angry, and confused. That’s what thousands of Penn State family and friends must be feeling after learning that a monster was coaching at their beloved program, and that members of the university including the once-legendary Joe Paterno, allegedly had knowledge of the situation and didn’t do enough to stop it. While I promise not to make this piece about the outrage millions of Americans and I feel involving this tragedy at Penn State, it gives all of us a chance to look at where we are as a society. It gives parents the ability to sit down with their kids and discuss what to do in situations like this. But it also creates the situation of having to sit down and explain why the man who WAS Penn State is being fired while thousands of college kids stomp the streets in protest. Why the man who was a reflection of a region in this country seemingly turned his eye to crimes being committed on his faculty so unspeakable that reading the Federal Grand Jury testimony is physically sickening. While it was the athlete who was committing the crime in this instance, similar talks had to be given to kids when they found out their favorite quarterback was being handcuffed and imprisoned for creating and funding a dog fighting organization at his house. As kids we never want to learn that our heroes can’t really fly or that they told us they could when they never really did so. That is why amidst the bombardment of controversies over the past decade from stars like Mike Vick, Kobe Bryant, and now Joe Paterno, it is clear that the idea of role models as of today are dead.
This past spring I coached an 11-year-old baseball squad. In my three years I had been coaching I never found one season so rewarding and beneficial like that season was. I had countless e-mails and conversations from parents telling me that I had an impact on their kid, whether it be regarding their confidence on the field or the way they began approaching each game mentally. It made me feel so good inside to know that even if it was just an inch deep I had an impact on a kid’s life. However, with everything that has transpired over the past week or so I can’t help but to think of how I would be treated if there were a practice today. Would parents hang around just a bit longer to observe the scene up close and personal? Would they keep at least one firm eye on me at all times to make sure my hands weren’t anywhere near where they shouldn’t be? And really who could blame them if they did? While I am only 20 and plan on not having any kids for many more years, I can’t help but believe that I would be at an all-time high alert regarding the safety of my children. Even if my kid told me that his baseball coach was whom he wanted to be like when he grew up and that he really understood who I was, I would still be cautious about ever letting the man around my kid without at least other people I trusted around. From all reports Jerry Sandusky was a model citizen for many years and someone who people felt was making the world a better place. If they only knew that a monster could put up a pretty good mask.
It is devastating to see the idea of role models crumble before our very eyes. While I am not denying that there are hundreds of quality candidates to fill the roles, how much are we willing to believe and buy-in before eventually everything begins to crumble apart. With all the technological advances making privacy a thing of the past, life as we know it has become one huge documented project. If a Presidential Candidate says a bad word, it takes all but 5 minutes to have to video uploaded to YouTube. It is safe to say that nothing gets past the cracks nowadays, and while in rare cases it might take decades to find out the whole truth, eventually it will be uncovered.
The emotional investment kids make in role models in so deep that to see their idol fall from grace, while it might take a while to fully grasp the magnitude of it, is nonetheless devastating and has significant effects. It begins to make you believe that good can easily be defeated by evil and that all people will eventually do bad. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t want any kid to ever believe that. Can you imagine if it was discovered Tim Tebow did drugs back in high school? The disappointment would be enormous. Kids gravitate towards great human beings, people who are elevated from normal men to God status. If it is discovered that their God is actually evil the devastation can be defining. If I could offer any solution to this it would be to simply be aware. As adults we must make sure that the youth only look up and idolize athletes, musicians, and celebrities to a certain extent. We want them to believe that while there is evil walking amongst us in this world, good can and will triumph in the end. While we might one day be able to remember a man or woman for all they did in their life and not have to bring up major controversies, we are too rocky as a society at the moment to have full trust in such people. And that to me is a crying shame.