This week, I'm thinking about loyalty. What triggered this is the Penn State football scandal, which I got sucked into like everyone else. I was horrified by the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, horrified that his crimes were covered up, and horrified by the spectacle of Penn State students taking to the streets to defend coach Joe Paterno after his sudden firing Wednesday night. Please understand that what I am writing is not a defense. I don't know anything about sexual abuse, thank the Gods, except that it is horrific and nobody, especially a child, should ever have to go through it. What I know, and am writing about, is how it feels to discover that things and people you loved are worse than you could ever have possibly imagined. It is me processing what I saw the way I do best--by writing it out.
I feel no sympathy for Paterno, though his distinguished, decades-long career flamed out in a spectacularly appalling manner. I don't feel sympathy for the students who took to the streets, either. Their main message wasn't "We support Paterno," but "Our priorities are all kinds of screwed up." But as I tried to consider why the students would go out and support Paterno rather than take to the coaches' houses with pitchforks and torches, I thought about my own fandoms.
Having lived in Florida most of my life, I grew up around college football as the state religion. Two friends of mine are in an interfaith marriage as well as a cross-rivalry marriage--an atheist Seminole and a Jewish Gator. Agreeing to raise their five children as (future) Seminoles and Jews satisfied them both. I have no doubt that if such a thing, Gods forbid, happened at the University of Florida or Florida State campuses, most students would rally around their coaches at least as passionately as the Penn State students did Wednesday night. Those coaches haven't been on these campuses for anywhere near the length of time Paterno had been. If these students are anything like the ones at UF and FSU, they grew up loving Penn State and the Nittany Lions, raised by parents who were passionate fans.
Love is a hard habit to break. Loyalty is one of the most beautiful human virtues. If it weren't for loyalty, none of us would even survive to adulthood, let alone manage to love and be loved. We need lasting love in this world, and we need loyalty. Passionate sports fandom is not only fun and a great way to meet people, but a powerful expression of humanity's best traits. Sadly, it can also contain some of the worst.
I somehow managed to avoid college football fandom. I didn't become a Florida Gator, either, which disappointed my mother. However, as a lifelong NASCAR fan, I have my own legendary old guys who I venerate. My father taught me to revere Richard Petty and Junior Johnson before he died. I know that Petty is proudly and profoundly right-wing. I know that Johnson got his start running moonshine and that he's been married and divorced several times. Yet when I see them on TV, I have to drop everything and watch. The sport I love wouldn't have been the same without them, and most fans will grieve when they're gone. I admitted on Twitter that if, Gods forbid, Petty or Johnson had been involved in anything remotely like the Penn State scandal, I "would cry for days." Love is a habit, and I have loved both of these men ever since I was old enough to recognize them on TV. I would not overturn a news van over it, but I would want to deny and defend as long as possible, until I reached the point where cold reality slapped me in the face.
Loyalty isn't loyalty, love isn't love, until you can accept imperfection. I know that Sidney Crosby has a bit of a dirty streak and worry that he won't be quite the same when he returns to the ice. I know that Tony Stewart can be a real jerk to reporters and that he gets stupid on the track when he's frustrated. I love them anyway. And then there are all the quirks and flaws that I accept in my wife, my friends, and my relatives. I love them for their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and hope they can return the favor. But where is the line between a lapse, a flaw, a weakness, and intolerable, unforgivable behavior? It's never quite as bold and bright as we think it will be when we encounter it.
I was my paternal grandfather's favorite, and I considered him the wisest man I knew. He was unfailingly kind to me, although he had this frustrating ability to know when I was planning to, say, use his John Deere green spray paint and thwart me. Imagine my horrified, devastated reaction when, at 15, I learned that my beloved granddaddy had been in the Ku Klux Klan. I still don't know precisely what he did when he was younger, but I know he didn't just turn up his nose at black men. By the time I was born, he'd left the Klan; by the time I was a teen, he had genuine friendships with black people and seldom displayed any racism. It was hard to accept that he'd been violent towards black people, and hard to even be near him after I'd accepted the reality of his younger years. He knew my love had gone cold, and we walked on eggshells with each other for a while. I eventually saw him as a changed man and a product of his environment, but I never saw him quite the same way I did as a little girl. There was a monstrous, cowardly component to his personality that I had to acknowledge even though I personally never saw it. He was capable of evil thoughts and actions.
This wasn't the first and only time I've seen the monster inside a loved one, but it was the worst. I will never know if my reactions were entirely right, or even if there was any good response available to me at all. What I know is that it's never a good feeling to know you loved and respected someone who is capable of evil. Is the evil the exception, or is it the qualities you loved? Or is that person a jumbled, confusing mess? Are they worth loving again, or do you walk away? Either way, it's going to hurt like hell.
What I think we saw in State College, Pennsylvania on Wednesday night isn't necessarily about the rape culture or a society that doesn't value its children, although those certainly are components. What I saw was a mass expression of denial, a large group of people who have been told they loved people who were capable of great evil and didn't want to hear it. The habits of love and loyalty had not been broken yet, and perhaps won't be for a while. Hopefully they will be smart and compassionate enough to feel stupid and guilty soon. Eventually they will have to stare the monsters inside people they loved and respected in the face, and accept that the football program they loved had been twisted into a place where young boys were irreparably harmed. And it will not be pleasant.
Every good thing can be turned bad when taken to excess, from cheese to bourbon to work to loyalty. Yes, even love can be turned sour and horrible. The truth is, we all have the capacities for great evil and great good inside of us. The challenge is taming our inner monsters, and letting the good in us take the lead most of the time. At times, we must recognize the evil we see around us and call it by its proper name in order to keep from becoming monstrous ourselves.