The Joe Paterno case reminds us again the problems with looking up to sports figures

A year ago, Joe Paterno was a legend. He was the head coach at Penn State and had been their for 45 years. At an old age, he was still like an unbeatable man on the sidelines. He was going to retire on his own terms, even causing some to joke that he’d die on the sidelines. Even after being dismissed from Penn State, at the time of his death former president George H.W Bush called him “”an outstanding American who was respected not only on the field of play but in life generally—and he was, without a doubt, a true icon in the world of sports.”

Now just a year later, Paterno is dead and his legacy has taken a huge beating. We’ve now learned his involvement in the Jerry Sandusky scandal was much more than we originally thought. Paterno not only didn’t report the incident to the police but he turned his back to it and tried his best to hide all evidence of it. The image of the once invincible Paterno is tainted. Nike has already removed his name from one of their buildings and there is talk to remove his statue from the Penn State campus.

Back in 1993, Charles Barkley starred in a Nike commercial that caused controversy when he said “I am not a role model”. Barkley knew how much young kids look up to athletes and his point was that you shouldn’t look up to him and other athletes, but people that you actually know like friends and athletes.

Charles Barkley’s words in 1993 carry as much weight as they do in today’s sports world, and more importantly today as we all watch the horrors of this Joe Paterno case. We’ve seen plenty of cases in the past that have reinforced this very point. Mike Vick, Barry Bonds and even the tons of athletes every year that get in small trouble over DUI’s or drug problems. They all have showcased poor decisions and have devastated fans as those who were fans of Joe Paterno.

This isn’t all to say that there aren’t good role models out there in the sports world. Derek Jeter, Tim Tebow and Drew Brees are all examples of people who have been great on and off the field and have given back with qualities that you would love to look up to. Like Paterno though, our visions of these figures we put above us can change in an instant.

Looking up to sports figures is a natural reaction. We see these people do things on the field that we can only dream of doing and get attached to our favorite athletes. Unfortunately though, Charles Barkley may have been right. Sports figures didn’t and never will make the best role models.


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