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The Penn State Tragedy Illustrates Four Reasons Why People Practice Idolatry

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 10

In the last post, I said that Penn State University has a culture of idolatry because the value system of the culture prioritizes football over the safety of children.  Does this mean that I think everyone associated with the university are a bunch of idolators?  Not at all.  But everyone at PSU is potentially touched by it’s pervasive football-first value system.  Here are four reasons that people practice idolatry.

1. For personal advantage. Former coach Joe Paterno and former president Graham Spanier seemed to embrace the culture of idolatry, because it gave them perks, power, and wealth.  According to the Freeh report, these men  “exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being.” Further, they exposed one child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky[i].

2. Out of habit. Timothy Curley practiced idolatry out of blind obedience.  Curley is described as “a State College native with a long family history at Penn State.” Some at PSU referred to Curley “Paterno’s errand boy”, and still another characterized him as “loyal to a fault to university management and the chain of command, someone who followed instruction regardless of the consequences.[ii]

3. Out of fear.  In the fall of 2000, a janitor saw Sandusky with a boy in the shower.  By all accounts, the man was devastated by what he had seen, but was afraid he would lose his job if he spoke up.  He said the following to investigators, “I know Paterno has so  much  power, [and] if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone… football runs this University, and the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.[iii]

4. By error.  On November 9, 2011 Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State, and thousands of students rioted, chanting “One more game.”  This constitutes is what philosophers call “Idolatry by Error.”  Idolatry by error is a behavior that persist due to cultural traditions whose foundation is based on incorrect information.  These kids were raised on the notion that Paterno was not only a great coach, but a great leader who taught his players how to be great men.  In other words, these kids thought that Paterno had been scapegoated, and that they were standing up against a great injustice.

Not everyone who works for Penn State buys in to the football-first value system, but not going along can come with a price.  For example, former VP of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey “butted heads with Paterno and his football supporters,[iv]”, and according to the Daily Beast, was fired for investigating players for sexual assaults.  Ironically, Triponey’s boss, former PSU president Graham Spanier, gave her poor performance reviews because she “wasn’t fitting in with the “Penn State way.[v]”   Kudos to Triponey for keeping her moral compass in the face of an alternate value system.

In the next post, we will discuss how the practice of idolatry often rests on self-deception and illusions.

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[i] Report of the Special Investigative Counsel  Regarding the Actions of The  Pennsylvania State University Related to  the Child Sexual Abuse Committed by  Gerald A. Sandusky.  Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, LLP  July 12, 2012 p. 14

[ii] Freeh report p. 75

[iii] Freeh report p. 65

[iv] Sexism played role in Penn St. horror by Jason Whitlock. July 14, 2012 retrieved July 16, 2012

[v] Meet Penn State’s New Whistleblower, Vicky Triponey by Jessica Bennett , Jacob Bernstein. The Daily Beast Nov 23, 2011. Retrieved July 15, 2012

Penn State & Idolatry Part I

“I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.” Modified Flickr CC image

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 9

This week we will be wrapping up the chapter on idolatry, by tying the traditional concepts to the modern day as a preference to the next chapter on corporate culture. 

In both 1998, and 2001, the top officials at Penn State University decided not to report assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for child abuse, who in 2012 was convicted of 45 counts, including crimes that happened after 2001.

Why did this happen?  Because Penn State University propagated a culture of idolatry, a value system that put the interests of the institution, (its football program in particular) ahead of the welfare of people.

According to the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Penn State had a “reverence for football program ingrained at all levels of the university.” This started from the top, with a “president who discouraged discussion and dissent,” and included the person who switched off CNN on the TV in the Penn State student center just before the Freeh Report was released.

Outside of Penn State, the reaction against Joe Paterno, the former coach who more than anyone else could have acted to stop Sandusky, has been swift.  Nike removed Paterno’s name from a child developmemt center on its Beaverton Oregon Campus.  Artist Michael Pilato painted over the halo over Joe Paterno’s head on the mural he painted in downtown State College PA.


2 pictures of PSU Graduation via Flickr CC

And now, the latest wrinkle says it all.  Should the 7 foot tall statue of Joe Paterno be taken down?  According to a recent article in the LA Times, university officials are unsure, and the community is divided.

Anyone care to guess what I think?

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