Knowing right versus wrong

Updated

Nothing is more disturbing than having someone in a position of moral authority who behaves in a lowly way.

We are taught, most of us, to look up to people in authority - church leaders, firefighters, police, those who teach us - to see them as being on a higher moral plane. Their positions tell us to respect them, to be guided by them, to see them in a special moral rank - one well above us.

And then, there come those times in our lives, when we are jolted by the g-force of someone in such a position acting totally against the character their positions suggest for them. I remember the churchman who made an ethnic comment, the spitting on the lawn as if he were some fellow from the street corner. I recall the firefighter who snarled at me from high up in his fire truck for daring to pass him on a congested street. I think of the N.Y. police who’ve just gone on trial for drug dealing and other corruption.

My church has been the most dramatic example of men held high in our public consciousness who have turned out to be hidden criminals in our midst, protected by their colleagues at the expense of those young boys they have sexually exploited and psychologically wounded  - perhaps for life.

And now, Penn State Football, an institution as American as apple pie, as beloved as Saturday itself, the pride of deer hunter country, the weekend joy of the coal miners, the deeply held bragging rights of the hardscrabble true believers of this old state, all of this sentiment held deeply and fervently felt for generations.

Why? Why did grown-ups become the cover-up squad? Why did men who must have been individually aghast at what they saw or heard that others saw not act out of that disgust they must have known at the instant they learned?

Perhaps it goes back to my own deepest advice I give to graduates of colleges like Penn State. If you don’t enter a world like big time college football or Washington, D.C. politics with a solid moral grounding of what is right and what is wrong you are unlikely to learn in that arena. It’s something you must have walking in that first day - and fight never to lose: that basic human knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.

As Penn State says goodbye to Joe Paterno - “JoePa” as they have long cheered him on big-game days - I hope, don’t we all? - that they will welcome back those basic values lost in the hunt for the next win on Saturday, because what makes college football - win or lose - great, what makes trying for personal and team glory in all the other fun and challenging contests on this earth, is the abiding respect for those values that we all know are greater still. 

Hardball Let Me Finish

Knowing right versus wrong

Updated