When Our Heroes Fall From Grace, It Hurts

The sports collectibles industry and society as a whole is all too familiar with hero worship. It surfaces with the posters, statues and even roads named after athletes and coaches. Although it is primarily money-driven in this industry, the reason the likes of Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb are so popular is because many consider them to be heroes – above the common man in most aspects of life.

But what happens when our heroes become villains? The current events at Penn State University are the latest example. Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with alleged sexual abuse of eight boys over a 15-year span. If that’s not enough, according to the indictment, a lot of people knew, including legendary head coach Joe Paterno, and no one did anything about it. The glean over Jo Pa’s program is gone after all these years, just like that.

Paterno has said he will retire at the end of the year so those higher ups in the university don’t have to decide his fate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s gone before then.

There is a very good column on ESPN.com from a writer who grew up in State College, Pa., in the shadows of Paterno’s home and how the whole ideal of Penn State football was wholesome, pure and encompassed everyday life. That feeling is gone, and part of the author’s life seems tarnished in retrospect.

Our love and affiliation with sports stars can take two different paths. If that athlete and/or coach excels on the field and goes through life cleanly, he is placed on a pedestal for all others succeeding him to be compared to. If something like the Sandusky scandal takes place, the statues (figuratively or literally) are brought down and that pride in said athlete and/or coach turns to embarrassment and anger.

The sports world has been full of these examples, with the biggest being the steroid era that has put the once thought-of amazing careers of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire into an asterisk-filled debate that places them somewhere near scrub status in the collectibles world.

In the flash of a few leaks and news reports, everything you thought about an athlete or coach can vanish, and that’s the pain of placing these folks on pedestals.

We all know of the warts of some of the great players of the past. Many of those warts are no where near the severity of the latest scandal, but they were there – if not reported on a daily business. In today’s world, it’s hard to keep a secret, which is why when those warts do surface it’s so troubling to find out others knew of the situation and did nothing. Sports and the integrity of an institution are placed above all other standards and morals, and that is never right in any case and especially with the latest one.

Sports is interwoven into our lives, and that’s why it hurts so much when those athletes and coaches don’t live up to the standards we put them at. It feels like they cheated us all along. For some of us, that means retreating back to our first heroes of the past, where no new scandals can surface to tarnish their image. It’s safe and we take comfort in that.

We can look fondly on the collectibles of those “clean” heroes, shake our heads at the current ones and talk about how the world is clearly messed up these days. I just wish we didn’t have to.

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