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Why the Joe Paterno Mystique Endures

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In a year or two, the controversy over removing the seven-foot statue of Joe Paterno outside Penn State's Beaver Stadium will seem perplexing. How could there even have been a debate about whether to continue to honor a fallen patriarch who turned a blind eye to child rape? Taking down the larger-than-life statue will seem like a no-brainer.

Yet in the immediate aftermath of a probe that faulted the late football coach for essentially doing nothing about rapes he probably knew about, taking down the statue and officially demoting Paterno's legacy has been a surprisingly wrenching decision. Penn State President Rodney Erickson decided to remove the statue within 10 days of the completion of the official investigation, which found that Paterno concealed knowledge of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's criminal behavior. Yet legends die hard, and Erickson's decision is unpopular with many Paterno supporters and Penn State alums. Some students gathered in a kind of vigil near the statue before its abrupt disappearance. The university could still decide to relocate the statue to someplace else on campus, or nearby.

Why is it so hard to un-honor a man who allowed loyalty to trump morality and abetted the grievous harm of children?

Paterno obviously had throngs of admirers at Penn State, in large part because of some genuine good he did for the school. He donated several million dollars of his own money to help construct the university's Paterno Library (which will continue to bear his name). He funded scholarships. And oh yeah, he helped build one of the nation's most successful college football programs.

But I think there are two other reasons that a lot of people -- including many appalled by Sandusky's behavior and uncomfortable with Paterno's role in it -- will remain captivated by the Paterno mystique.

First, we need heroes, and when we choose to deify ordinary living people, we tend to ascribe more beatific qualities to them than they actually possess. The heroic fatal flaw is a recurring theme in art and literature going back centuries, of course, yet it remains human nature to reduce real-life role models to two-dimensional confections uncorrupted by normal human frailties.

That seems to be what happened to Paterno. Fans and supporters built him into a godlike superhuman, as if he couldn't have done something as venal as subordinate the welfare of kids to his beloved football program. Paterno may even have developed a hero complex himself, imagining that regular laws or common sense didn't apply to him. Yet absolute power, as Paterno seemed to wield at Penn State, rarely produces the kind of enlightened, selfless leaders we like to pretend people like Paterno are.

The hero mantle is often unsettling to those who wear it. President Barack Obama is suffering now from a failure to deliver the messianic results many supporters expected when they voted for him in 2008. Former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld considered himself to be virtually invincible, which made him blind to the gargantuan vulnerabilities at his own firm. Bernie Madoff got away with fraud for so long -- while wowing clients with his amazing "performance" -- that he must have thought he would never get caught. But real-life heroes almost always end up being far more flawed than we want them to be.

Second, once we have convinced ourselves of the righteousness of a hero or cause, it can be damn hard to unlearn that devotion. Paterno coached at Penn State for 61 years, and for nearly all of that time he cultivated a countercultural image of athletic probity. For many of his devotees, it will take a while to get used to the idea that they believed in something that wasn't nearly as wholesome as they thought. Others will never make the adjustment, because it's a lot easier to go on believing what you always believed than to acknowledge the holes in your belief system, and adjust.

This is one reason we have such tense and fractured political discourse. People of all persuasions tend to seek out information that validates their views, while disregarding information that conflicts with their views. Psychologists call it confirmation bias. People who are receptive to information that challenges what they believe tend to be the best learners and the most adaptable leaders, as I described in my book Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. But this is an uncommon trait, and while it can be learned, it requires an unusual degree of self-awareness and equanimity.

The transgressions at Penn State are shocking and profound, which is why a lot of onlookers have already changed their thinking about Joe Paterno, his legacy, and the culture of obeisance that formed around him. More people will come around to the idea of Paterno's culpability as time passes. But Paterno will remain a deity to some, even if they have to airbrush his story to fit their requirements. We need heroes like we once imagined Joe Paterno to be.