Fallen Heroes | Out and About November 2012

It might have been an uncanny coincidence, but not long ago, the release of the Freeh Report to the trustees of Penn State University appeared to confirm that the late, legendary football coach Joe Paterno knew more than he had previously admitted about his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s destructive attraction to young boys.

Within what seemed like a matter of days, Lance Armstrong announced that he would no longer contest the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts to strip him of his victories based on mounting testimony and evidence that he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career. After more than a decade of defiantly fending off accusations and innuendos, Lance, somewhat abruptly, tossed in the towel, in effect conceding the charges against him.

The two stories are similar, primarily in the incredible stature of the sports figures involved and their precipitous falls from grace. It is all too common to hear of college coaches who bend recruiting rules to attract talented players, or overzealous, young athletes caught for supplementing their natural ability with performance-enhancing drugs, but Paterno and Armstrong were the standard-bearers of their professions. There could scarcely be a better example of the old adage, “the higher they fly, the farther they fall.”

Much has been written about the scandal at Penn State since it became national news last November. It is widely recognized that during his 46-year tenure as head football coach, he became the winningest collegiate football coach in history. e also played a significant role in bringing Penn State national recognition, not only for athletics but for academic excellence and research as well. Although some at the university may have had legitimate concerns regarding the influence and stature of the football program, most in Happy Valley idolized Paterno and proudly recounted the millions of dollars he and the football program contributed to the library and other academic programs.

Soon after the scandal broke, nearly a year ago, Paterno’s home was besieged by the media. A frail, old man with the signature coke-bottle eyeglasses stood pathetically on his front step and admitted that “he should have done more.” He was referring to his action of simply passing on to his athletic director the report of an assistant coach who had observed Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the Penn State football locker room. Although more may come out as investigations continue, it appears that several Penn State administrators, including Paterno, failed to take decisive action, fearing the negative publicity it might generate toward Penn State football.

Much has also been written during the past decade about Lance Armstrong’s alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs in claiming his unprecedented seven Tour de France victories. And the plot gets more convoluted as the story unravels. Lance has maintained for more than a decade that “he has never done anything illegal” and “has never failed the hundreds of doping tests he has taken.” But for years, unethical athletes, coaches, and sports scientists have been creating slight variations of proven enhancements simply to avoid using the drugs on the list of banned substances. And although Lance never failed a test, there have been several mysterious irregularities, test samples that disappeared, etc. In fact, part of the current evidence against him involves samples taken years ago, but retested recently using more sophisticated, advanced testing methods that reveal illegal performance enhancement.

Some might say, so what? The Tour de France has been notorious for doping for decades. For a time, doping was almost synonymous with endurance cycling. Is Lance a cheat if he is simply doing what had become tradition among the leaders of the sport? And consider the witnesses who have agreed to testify against him, nearly a dozen, many of them fellow riders who doped themselves, lied about it, and eventually came clean.
I suspect that Joe Paterno tried to protect his beloved university and football program from a scandal, and when he fully understood the extent of Sandusky’s crimes, Paterno’s deep regret, sense of guilt, and sorrow hastened his death from lung cancer.

I believe that Lance Armstrong is a fierce competitor who “saw how the game was played” and did what he had to do to win. I don’t think that either Paterno or Armstrong are evil, they simply got swept up in situations that overwhelmed their judgment, their basic sense of right and wrong. Perhaps the real lesson here is that sport should remain healthy and fun and that our sports heroes are just normal people who have the good fortune of making a living playing a game. When sport becomes entertainment, generating millions of dollars and creating positions of power and influence, we inevitably get into trouble.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.