Football, Imperfection, and Happy Valleys

Across the nation, football is revered. The National Football League commands our attention on Sundays and Monday Nights. College football is worshipped on Saturdays, especially in the south. Nevertheless, as a fan and frequent attendee at the Saturday services hosted by USC at Williams-Brice Stadium, I will not sneer or cynically propose that we worship football with more enthusiasm than we worship God. On more than one occasion during church a preacher has admonished me and other fans for a perceived imbalance of our priorities. This is low-hanging fruit for the preacher eager to make a point. However, I believe the two, God and football, do not share enough in common to be compared. I've never wondered about the mystery of football as I do the ineffable nature of God. I've never expected the Gamecocks to hear my prayers or satisfy my deepest longings. Sure football can be an idol, but so can family, and I've never heard a sermon based on the premise that you should love God more than your family.

Still, the recent unraveling of the Penn State football program might have something to teach us, the church folks that propose by preaching, teaching, and leading that the way of Jesus is worth following. Joe Paterno was revered in Happy Valley. Chief among the many qualities that his followers referenced when explaining why he deserved our admiration was the "Grand-Experiment" that he tested for 30+ years. Winning football games would not come before the responsibility he assumed to mold men of character that worked hard, completed their course work, and didn't cheat. Under his leadership, the football program was never sanctioned or investigated by the NCAA, graduation rates remained high, and the 108,000 fans that gathered on Saturdays were consistently rewarded with a winning team.

Of course, we know the end of this story. And while we've grown accustomed to being disappointed by leaders of institutions, the failure of leadership at Penn State was startling. Most of the attention, and probably an unfair amount of the blame, has been directed toward Paterno. The fall of this coaching legend is spectacular and as is our custom, we cannot take our eyes off the personal drama as it unfolds rapidly in real time on TV. It is always comforting to find that the mistakes of others are more grievous than our own, right?

Paterno's fall commands our present attention, but I think the more enduring consequence for us is the unavoidable erosion of trust in another institution. No, football cannot be compared with God. However, it is an institution (or is at least the most identifiable symbol of one, the university), like church, to which we ascribe trust. This trust has nothing to do with wins or losses. Paterno and the other leaders of Penn State knew this when they determined that the reputation of the program and the university, not the boys Jerry Sandusky preyed upon, necessitated their protection. Reputations are not fickle on the front end. We may "like" someone instantly because they are charming, make us laugh, or bear a quality we desire for ourselves. Reputations, though, are determined over time. Good reputations are hard to earn and yet so easy to lose.

The public divestiture of Penn State's reputation as an institution will raise the barrier of trust for all institutions. This was the case after Watergate, a watershed moment that precipitated the decline of institutional trust in the United States. We never imagined the President of the United States would eavesdrop on political enemies and despite the abundance of coverage at Penn State, no-one has been quoted declaring, "I told you so" regarding Paterno's character. As one who was molested at a young age by men outside my family, I weep with the victims. Their pain will persist, forever, no matter how much money is set aside for abuse prevention programs. And I weep for all the faithful but still imperfect leaders of institutions everywhere. Their job has just been made harder.

The secret that Paterno and others worked hard to keep wasn't about the child predator on the coaching staff. The secret they risked everything to keep was that Penn State Football wasn't perfect. Happy Valley was not heaven.

What's the lesson for us? Let's lead our institutions, our families, and our churches by being gracious to ourselves and admitting from the start that the only "Grand-Experiment" worth pursuing is the one proposed in the Gospel - we are made perfect in our weakness. Maybe then, football and everything else under the sun will be worthy of a comparison to God.