When the hero falls off the pedestal

Story highlights

Joe Paterno's reputation took a hit after Penn State scandal

Author of "Paterno" biography: What happened "does throw you up in the air"

Natural to have role models, say psychologists, but we should be more generous in judging

When role models fall, we feel angry, vengeful; it's hard to be forgiving

CNN  — 

Joe Paterno was pulled off his pedestal, almost literally.

The legendary Penn State coach, a bigger-than-life hero for most of his life, was cast in a seven-foot, bigger-than-life statue that welcomed visitors to Beaver Stadium, an imposing line of four helmeted players behind him, his right index finger held triumphantly. The latter was a gesture the coach disliked, but why not show him that way? He was the icon of the football program, the creator of the “Grand Experiment” combining athletics, academics and life lessons. He was the pride of the university.

But then came the fall.

Last year, former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually abusing children. Paterno was criticized for inaction and then lost his job, as did the president, vice president and athletic director. The coach died in January.

The statue of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was torn down in July.

Eventually, Paterno and the other Penn State officials were condemned for a “callous and shocking disregard for child victims,” according to the report spearheaded by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. (Paterno’s family has since questioned the Freeh report: “We are dismayed by, and vehemently disagree with, some of the conclusions and assertions and the process by which they were developed,” they said in a statement. )

In June, Sandusky was convicted of child sex abuse.

Penn State scandal: Where things stand

In July, the statue was, all too symbolically, taken down.

It’s an old, old story. We’ve all placed people on pedestals, and then, almost inevitably, they let us down. They violate our trust. They betray us. They fall off the pedestal, or we remove them.

And then we’re left to pick up the pieces. The process leaves you open to second-guessing, from others, and from yourself.

New season opens with a hope and a prayer

“You think, ‘Everything that I needed to know was in front of me,’ and begin to question their own judgment,” said Nathan DeWall, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky. ” ‘Why didn’t I see this coming?’ “

Sportswriter Joe Posnanski has had to wrestle with that question, and he’s still in the middle of it.

What ‘We are … Penn State’ means now

Posnanski came to Penn State to write Paterno’s biography. It would be “the most amazing football story ever told,” wrote Posnanski in his book proposal, according to The New York Times, “the remarkable story about a man who could have been anything but decided that the best way he could help change America was one college football player at a time.”

His biography, simply called “Paterno,” was originally slated for Father’s Day 2013. After Paterno’s death and all the publicity surrounding Penn State, it was moved up to mid-August. There is a chapter devoted to Sandusky: “The two men despised each other from the start,” it begins. There are references to Paterno’s prudery, his ignorance, his confusion. Posnanski observes that the Ivy League-educated coach, having read the grand jury presentment of the Sandusky allegations, had to ask his son, “What is sodomy, anyway?”

“The story changed dramatically at the end, and that does throw you up in the air,” Posnanski told Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” show. (Through his publisher, Posnanski declined an interview with CNN.)

“I think it’s very, very complicated. This is a man, you see how many people felt like their lives were changed by him, inspired by him, galvanized by him. You can’t ignore those people,” Posnanski said. “At the same time, you can’t ignore the end, you can’t ignore the evils of Jerry Sandusky and the horrible things that were done, and Joe Paterno among others were in position to stop him but didn’t.”

Some of Posnanski’s reviewers, however, don’t buy his defense of the coach.

“Instead of confronting the horrifying truth about his subject matter, Posnanski attempts an amazingly clumsy whitewash of the facts,” wrote Paul Campos in Salon, calling “Paterno” “a disgraceful book and a minor literary crime.”

The raw emotions, pro and con, are typical of such events, and Paterno is just the latest figure to find himself reappraised. Some, such as Tiger Woods, merely exposed themselves as the opposite of their public image. Others, such as John Edwards, prompted supporters to question why they had believed in him in the first place.

And a handful, such as Bernard Madoff, deliberately and criminally violated the trust of friends, acquaintances and colleagues.

But all were widely seen as above reproach until the moment when it all came crashing down.

So who’s to blame, us or the guy on the pedestal? Are they bad people, or are we a bunch of suckers?

Character and hypocrisy

It’s a deeply ingrained human attribute to look for role models.

“Humans have a fundamental need to connect with other people,” said DeWall, who studies social acceptance and exclusion. “If we can connect with someone, that really helps satisfy our need to belong.”

Moreover, we like to select people who inspire us to become “better versions of ourselves,” whether it’s because of their intelligence, their athleticism or their charisma, he adds.

We generally assume these heroes are “good,” at the very least, we dismiss their flaws, and assume their character is unchangeable. But the truth is, said “Out of Character” co-author David DeSteno, character is actually quite malleable.

“What research shows, time and again, is that people’s moral behavior is a lot more variable than any of us think,” said DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University.

For most of us, mechanisms in the brain aren’t focused on “good” and “bad,” he said. They’re focused on short-term gain and long-term gain, and we adjust behavior accordingly.

“What all of us are trying to do, whether consciously or unconsciously, is make that calculation at each moment,” he said. “And when the incentive changes enough, then many of us are going to act out of character.”

He mentions a character test he and a colleague did on hypocrisy. Participants were offered two tasks, one long and onerous, the other short and fun. Then they were told to flip a coin to see which task they’d get, and the next person would get the opposite task. At that point the researchers left the room and secretly watched.

Ninety percent – 90%! – of the participants didn’t flip the coin, or kept flipping until they got the task they wanted and still said they’d believed they’d acted fairly. Yet they weren’t so generous with others: When they watched an actor do the exact same thing, the participants condemned him.

So what’s OK for me is not OK for thee. I can have flaws, but not someone else, like my role model. They’re supposed to be better than that.

Naturally, exposing someone’s failings erodes trust, and trust is the most important factor in establishing relationships, said DeWall. It’s also often the quickest thing we lose. Some evolutionary psychologists argue that we have a “cheater detection mechanism,” and once it goes off, it’s difficult to win back favor, he said.

Moreover, those who have been betrayed not only lose trust in the betrayer, but in others. Once burned, twice shy, as the old saying goes.

And yet, eventually, we’re willing to trust again, and perhaps make the same excuses and mistakes.

“People will select information in ways they want to see it and interpret it in ways they want to see it,” said Kurt Dirks, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

It comes down to another old saying: “Love is blind.”

‘Your body feels like it’s experiencing a physical injury’

John Edwards’ aide, Andrew Young, not to mention millions of Democrats, certainly saw in Edwards what they wanted to see. A Washington magazine called Edwards “Senator Perfect.” He was good-looking and magnetic on the stump, with a bright wife and a photogenic family.

Former senator John Edwards was brought down by a sex scandal.

In his memoir, “The Politician,” Young mentions Edwards’ flaws, but at first papers over them. The senator never seemed to read his briefing books. He was “always aware of press opportunities.” Edwards comes off as rather full of himself, certainly not unusual for politicians, but Young still saw him in a golden light. It was light that reflected well on him: “First, I was doing the job the only way I knew, saying yes to every request and doing my best all the time. Second, I truly believed that John Edwards was going to be president of the United States one day, and I thought that this would be good for the country and for our family. Finally, I knew that I had become indispensible.”

He stuck with this attitude until the strain of caring for John Edwards, not to mention Edwards’ paramour, Rielle Hunter, became too much. And then he let fly.

“In the strange universe he occupied, he and his wife were the only two beings who mattered,” Young wrote. “He was a remorseless and predatory creature, unaffected by the suffering of others, even suffering he had caused with his reckless behavior.”

Young felt betrayed because the John Edwards he was left with was not the John Edwards he knew, or thought he knew.

Regardless of whether the betrayal is done deliberately or negligently, it is powerful stuff. The metaphors of betrayal’s impact – “heartbroken,” “crushed,” “kicked in the stomach” – are no exaggeration, said Kentucky’s DeWall: “Your body feels like it’s experiencing a physical injury,” he said. No wonder so many works of literature, from Shakespeare to airport potboilers, use betrayal as a plot trigger for anger and revenge.

Time doesn’t always heal, either. Dirks, the business professor, has done studies with people, asking them about a violation of trust from decades earlier, “and you could still hear the emotion in their voice,” he said. “They couldn’t forget, and in some cases, couldn’t forgive.”

Forgiveness, in fact, maybe the hardest act for the betrayed, as any divorced couple can tell you. But it is possible, and its appearance in literature has provided some of art’s finest grace notes. Think Jane Eyre, who still marries Rochester despite his lies, or David Copperfield, who forgives his caddish friend Steerforth despite the latter having “ruined” Copperfield’s beloved friend Emily.

Copperfield is perhaps Dickens’ most autobiographical character, and his forgiving nature suggests something of his creator, said Priti Joshi, a literature professor at the University of Puget Sound.

 Tiger Woods' squeaky-clean reputation was damaged after his infidelity was revealed.

Dickens was victim to betrayal himself, she points out: Even after his father got out of debtors’ prison, the famed author claimed he was forced to stay in the hated blacking factory because his parents didn’t want him back home. And yet there was an upside: “In his case, it fueled the most astonishing fecundity of creativity,” she said.

Forgiveness also figures in perhaps the most famous betrayal narrative of all, that of Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ. Judas betrays Jesus to the ruling priests for 30 pieces of silver. Despite that action, however, Jesus forgives him, according to some interpretations: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Jesus said on the cross (Luke 23:34). Judas, however, has not asked for forgiveness; racked with shame, he has killed himself.

‘He was a human being’

In the wake of the Penn State turmoil, Simon & Schuster, “Paterno’s” publisher, is pitching the biography as being in the tradition of David Maraniss’ Vince Lombardi tome and Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio biography, the latter a particularly cold-eyed look at an often unheroic man. According to ESPN, the book will debut at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

For his part, Posnanski simply hopes the book is honest. He questions the Freeh report, calling it “very incomplete.” “He jumped to conclusions that I cannot jump to,” Posnanski told Bob Costas in a long interview that aired Wednesday.

And in a USA Today column, he described a balance he hopes he achieved.

“No, I don’t feel about Joe Paterno the same way I did when I started writing the book,” he wrote. “But I don’t feel about him the way his most blistering critics feel. He was a human being, filled with ideals and flaws, honesty and hypocrisy, charity and selfishness, modesty and the refusal to abdicate his throne. There was little simple about him. I chased the complicated story of a man and his long life. I hope that is the story I wrote.”

At the very least, it seems, Posnaski discovered what Northeastern’s DeSteno observes about human behavior.

“The boxes we put around people are false labels. It’s an easy way to assume what they’re like in our realm,” DeSteno said. “Everybody’s behavior is a lot more variable.”

Paterno came in for a lot of criticism after the Sandusky scandal broke.

Accepting that people are flawed takes away power from the person on the pedestal. If a Penn State fan has wrapped his or her identity in the perceived goodness of the football program or Joe Paterno, then when that power is abused, the person is left all the more bereft, DeSteno said. The message is basic: “We have to be careful about engaging in hero worship.”

Philip Houston, the author of the new book “Spy the Lie,” is even more emphatic. In his work as a CIA agent, he had plenty of experience in identifying abuse of trust. His recommendation: Educate yourself, and learn about who you’re dealing with.

“As a former polygraph examiner, one of the things you learn early on is you can never really do a polygraph test on someone’s intent – ‘I’m never going to lie again,’ or ‘I’m never going to take money that doesn’t belong to me,’ ” he said, echoing some of DeSteno’s ideas. “No matter how true that may be in your mind at that moment in time, it’s only good for the three seconds it takes you to make that statement, and then your world can change on a moment’s notice.”

Paterno, well-read as he was, knew how quickly events could turn. In a 1973 Penn State commencement address reprinted in “Paterno,” he warned about how high ideals could be betrayed and brought low.

“Don’t underestimate the world,” he said. “It can corrupt quickly and completely.”

Kicking off a new era of football at Penn State, with a hope and a prayer