No man is bigger than an idea

That's all I have. Days later, that's the only way I can reconcile what has happened at my alma mater, one of my true homes, and my childhood. No man is bigger than an idea.


The basic story, even in its complexity, is pretty simple to understand: unspeakable acts were alleged to have been committed on children, nothing was done to combat this, and they continued. Investigation launched, charges filed, our whole world seemingly went to hell.


Our hell, of course, is nothing compared to the anguish of the victims. Our individual and collective sorrow seems petty and delusional. But what's wrong with us? Why can't we separate ourselves from the actions of a handful of individuals?


We feel betrayed, we feel crushed, we feel angry, and sometimes we're still too shocked to feel anything at all. We're embarrassed by our association with our university, we're ashamed of our memories that seem so hollow now, and we're confused on how to think of the face of everything Penn State, Joe Paterno. 


What's our problem? Most of us never met the man, most of us didn't play football for him, and certainly none of us had anything to do with the scandal that resulted in his downfall. I personally feel let down by the failure to live up to certain moral standards by my university, and maybe more so by the man who challenged us all to live up to his idea of what the university should be all about.


It might seem silly that hundreds of thousands of us bought into Paterno's "Grand Experiment," seeing how all it really meant to accomplish was for athletes -- football players, specifically-- to strive to be not only successful on the field, but in the classroom and community, too. But we believed in it. The football team bought it, the rest of the student-athletes bought it, the university, alumni, fans, and whatever this "Nittany Nation" thing is all took it to heart. Maybe we were naive and maybe a little arrogant about our belief, but I'd like to think that a lot of good came out our collective dedication to "Success with Honor." That is, until long before this scandal ever broke, when individuals failed to live up the standard by which we all tried to live. And one individual above all seemed to let us down.


By most all accounts, Joe Paterno did his best to live up to his own standards for decades -- until he didn't. He had so many chances to do the right thing in this situation, and for some reason he fell short. Joe Paterno was and probably still is a good man, but he's still just a man.


Man is fallible. Paterno made mistakes, including an egregious one for which he might never be forgiven. We idolized him for being everything that was right, for holding himself, and all of us, to certain standards. We personally never always lived up to those standards, but many thousands tried and took pride in that. 


This is not a defense of Paterno or his actions. This is my personal reasoning of a situation that I'm trying to understand, and all I can come up with for myself and for the Penn State community is that while Paterno might have let everyone (especially the victims) down, the idea behind his life's work is not any less meaningful. 


We're all reacting differently, and similarly, to his surreal exit from Penn State. Many want to show their support of Paterno's positive influence on their university. I can't help think that instead of supporting the man himself, that it would mean more to support the idea that made us love him. Let's not direct our pain, anger, and despair toward outsiders, ourselves, and the university as an institution. Instead, let's hope for justice, do our part to combat child abuse, and honor all that was, and still is, good about Penn State. Success with Honor doesn't die with Paterno's tenure.


I'm scared of what might unfold Saturday. But, I'm optimistically looking forward to continuing our proud traditions for decades more, long after individuals have been dishonored and justice served. We don't do this because of Joe Paterno but because we all believe in the same idea that brought us together in the first place. That's how we'll know that our memories, our identities, and our beliefs meant something real. 


No man, not even Joe Paterno, can be bigger than that idea.

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