Friday, March 16, 2012

How good does someone have to be to earn a free pass when they're bad?

Earlier this week, one of the top stories in Provo, UT (where I live and work) was the Provo School District's suspension and planned termination of a popular football coach at one of the local high schools.  It is a sad story on a number of levels:  at least one person (and probably more) will likely lose his job, students and athletes at the school will have to deal with a number of distractions for the rest of the academic year, community members are upset, and public education (especially athletic departments at public institutions) has been given another black eye.  As I watched things play out over the last week, I couldn't help but think back to the Penn St. sex abuse scandal that dominated the media a few months ago.

Obviously, financial misdeeds seem incredibly benign juxtaposed with sexual abuse of children; however, there are some interesting parallels.  Both stories seem to illustrate a more general archetypal pattern of the fallen sports hero.  These stories contain a number of common elements.  First, the hero (usually a player or a coach, although in some communities some kind of athletic administrator may rise to this position) emerges through his (I use that pronoun intentionally here because I can't think of a fallen sports hero that isn't a male) consistent on-field success, contributions to the community (e.g. mentoring of young athletes, improved community morale around a winning team, charitable work, etc.), and general likability or charisma.  Note that this rise occurs over a number of years as in order to be considered a hero (rather than a one-season wonder) the character must establish an athletic dynasty, build a following in the community, and demonstrate (especially to those critics of traditional athletic culture) a level of integrity and commitment worthy of others' admiration.

The conflict in the story comes when the hero falls.  Although losing seasons may be part of this fall, losing alone isn't enough to qualify a narrative as a fallen sports hero story, because at their core, these are stories of betrayal and lost hope.  As much as we love our teams, we don't feel betrayed when they lose (in fact, the most die-hard fans increase their loyalty when losses pile up--do you know any Cubs fans?), just disappointed, frustrated, or maybe even angry.  Heroes fall when something disturbing happens in the overlapping space between their personal and professional lives, and we as their admirers are forced to confront a discrepancy between their actions and our idyllic image of them as societal models.  They break the law, mistreat individuals in their personal life, or in some other way act counter to the values we have previously believed they exemplified for us.  And, we are left feeling betrayed, hurt, and wondering if there is any good left in the world.

There are at least two typical responses at this point in the story.  First, athletic skeptics (and new believers who were once skeptics of athletics) use the fall as justification for their beliefs that athletics has nothing positive to contribute to the world (e.g. "All successful coaches cheat and lie and hot-shot players are entitled jerks who take what they want").  The other response, which is the more interesting one of the two, takes the form of praise for all the hero has done for the community and a profession of faith in the innocence and continued goodness of the hero.  This type of response is evident in a statement made by prominent author Stephen Covey, in support of Provo's current embattled sports hero:

"I believe in Coach Louis Wong. He is so much more than just a football coach. He represents Timpview      and he stands for excellence. He is as fine a man and leader as I know."

Another example from the hero's attorney:

 "What Lou did for the school and community went far beyond the field of play.  What he did is what we want our educators to do — care about the kids who are entrusted to their care, to help them, to teach them to make the right choices, to be team players, to cooperate and to work for what they get." 

While much of what is contained in these statements is probably true--I don't doubt that the coach really did care about students and players or that he possesses tremendous leadership skills--they make no attempt to address the wrongdoing.  Instead, they seem to imply that, because of the hero's long record of good deeds and established reputation as a good citizen, it isn't possible that he could be guilty as charged.  The same type of response was apparent in the Penn St. scandal as well when Paterno supporters criticized his termination by providing long lists of his good deeds (again, supporters rarely addressed the validity of the actual charges, just provided character references and expected that to be enough to clear him).  Beneath all of this rhetoric seems to be a belief that heroes', through their good deeds and exemplary lives, earn "free passes," that society is then obligated to accept as payment for wrongdoing.  

I don't know whether Louis Wong is completely innocent, just naive, or guilty.  We'll probably never know, and to give him any one of those labels would probably be overly simplistic.  However, it would be helpful if more of us were willing to admit that our heroes are usually both heroic and flawed as evidenced in this statement from Bob Gentry, interim Superintendent for the Provo School District:

"It’s extremely gut-wrenching and heartbreaking.  I know Coach Wong personally, and I think he’s a good man. I personally think he didn’t have criminal intent, but he made mistakes and we can’t ignore those mistakes." 

What would really be heroic in all of this would be for everyone involved to be completely honest about mistakes that were made.  That would include Wong as well as the former principal at the school, district officials, parents, assistant coaches, and anyone else involved.  But, that would be a fairy tale.

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