By: Korey Boehm
With the rapid onset of technology, the American public has been receiving stories about its celebrities, sports stars, and politicians at a pace never before seen in the history of media. More often than not, sadly, these stories implicate our most beloved public figures in dealings that we, as the public, cannot possibly imagine them having any part in. It has become the norm for the American public to award the benefit of the doubt in almost all of these situations, using the all-too-common “there is no way (insert notable achiever’s name here) could have done that” as an adequate acquittal for all wrongdoings. Recent history, however, has taught America that the facts must speak for themselves, as hard as they may be to accept.
No matter how daunting the evidence, we have insisted on clinging to the slightest sliver of doubt that our role models might be disgraceful. Such was the case regarding the (in)famous Joe Paterno.
“Joe Pa” coached the Penn State Nittany Lions for over 45 years, winning 2 national titles while leading the team to 37 bowl appearances and 5 undefeated seasons. He gained the admiration of many for his dedication to the collegiate program in an era that saw many coaches leave for the brighter lights of the National Football League. His perceived dedication to doing things “the right way” endeared him to millions, as he dedicated millions of dollars back to the university and did not commit any recruiting violations in his 45 years as head coach. Paterno was even nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, as he was considered by many to be the epitome of American sports.
For all of these reasons, when former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually molesting young boys repeatedly for over 15 years, America assumed its adored Joe Pa was innocent. When the Penn State Board of Trustees decided to fire him, several thousand Penn State students rioted to the chant of his name, destroying street signs and even overturning a news van. By insisting that the Joe Paterno we had all come to love and adore could not have possibly had any role in this monstrosity, we were refusing to believe what some at Penn State had known for years. Joe Paterno was a man who would win by any means necessary, including protecting a known child abuser. It was not until the Freeh Report was published that the nation realized how fooled it had truly been.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh and his firm, consisting of former federal prosecutors and FBI agents, were appointed by the Penn State Board of Trustees to carry out a private investigation into the scandal. They interviewed more than 400 people, examined over 3.5 million documents, and eventually concluded that Paterno, among other top-ranking Penn State officials, had in fact covered up Sandusky’s actions in order to shield Penn State’s celebrated football program from any resulting bad publicity. Among other travesties, the report details evidence that Paterno lied under oath when testifying that he was unaware of any possible child abuse by Sandusky prior to 2001. In addition, the report shows Paterno convinced then-Athletic Director Tim Curley not to pursue criminal action against Sandusky. Even more disturbing, Freeh described how even after Sandusky’s retirement in 1999, Paterno and his associates “empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the University’s facilities and affiliation with the University’s prominent football program.”
Paterno’s active role in the sex abuse scandal was not the first time a public figure was incriminated, but the magnitude of his national reverence, coupled with the extremely disturbing nature of his actions, has made many people much more skeptical of those in the spotlight. However, it was not until the recent Lance Armstrong saga came to a head that America truly learned its lesson.
After overcoming testicular cancer through exhaustive chemotherapy, Armstrong returned to his sport
of cycling to win the Tour de France a record 7 times. His victorious battle led him to found the LIVESTRONG foundation in 1997, which has raised over $500 million in the battle against cancer. For all of these reasons, Armstrong was regarded as nothing less than an American hero for much of the past decade. It was also for these reasons that the American public was willing to so ardently defend him each and every time he was accused of doping throughout his illustrious career, often believing he was the victim of a “witch hunt.”
Armstrong himself passionately denied any and all doping allegations throughout
his career, insisting that he competed fairly during an era of widespread doping and often pointing to the fact that he never failed a drug test as evidence of his innocence. Similar to Joe Paterno’s demise, the American public refused to believe that such an admired and respected figure could betray their trust. That was, anyway, until the United States Anti-Doping Agency released its report detailing Armstrong’s continued use of performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career, calling it “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” On an intensely anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey, he finally came clean, admitting to America that he had been deceiving them for years.
As sickening as it is to hear that we have been lied to for so long, Armstrong’s blatant misleading of the public has not been all for naught. In retrospect, this seems to be the final straw that has allowed America to turn the page on being blind optimists towards those in the public realm. This was exemplified in this year’s voting for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
In their first year on the ballot, both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, undoubtedly the best hitter and pitcher of their generation, received nowhere near the 75 percent of votes needed for election. Bonds, the all-time career home runs leader, garnered only 36.2 percent, while Clemens, with a record seven Cy Young Awards to his name, did only slightly better, with 37.6 percent. While neither of these players has ever been officially found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs, both names have been repeatedly linked to PEDs and both have stood trial on charges that they lied under oath when stating they never took steroids. The fact that baseball writers, acting on behalf of American sports fans nationwide, decided that two of baseball’s all-time greatest players will not be formally acknowledged with the game’s greatest honor is highly representative of a changing American mindset.
It does not matter if you are John Edwards, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Manti Te’o, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Paterno, or Lance Armstrong, America will no longer allow you to betray its trust.
In the near future, there is sure to be a superstar who thinks that he will be able to hide behind his name while he commits crimes and indecencies as he works to maintain his innocence. For all the American people know, that person may indeed be innocent, but that person should know this: too many role models have taken advantage of our blind optimism and America is no longer granting the benefit of the doubt.