Cognitive dissonance- anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory orotherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like, as when onelikes a person but disapproves strongly of one of his or her habits. (dictionary.com)
We have all seen this. This has happened to all of us. Everyone, at some point or another, has to reconcile conflicting beliefs. For some, it’s as simple as seeing a friend do something wrong. For others, it’s having a father-figure shown to be an enabler of the worst possible crime a human being can commit.
That is what happened to Matt Millen today in front of the entire nation. He was put on the air not once, but twice (at the time of this publishing) to discuss the situation at Penn State. After all, he is an alumnus who loved and respected Joe Paterno like a father. Who else should ESPN put on to discuss Paterno’s now-shattered legacy? The answer, of course, is just about anyone else. Millen spent at least 3 hours trending and getting blasted on Twitter. And after seeing this, his higher-ups at ESPN decided to put him on the air again.
But this isn’t about the mistake that ESPN made in showing Millen’s emotions and struggles to the whole nation. This is about Millen’s thoughts and beliefs himself. Because he does give a fair representation of what Penn State nation is thinking right now. Shock. Incredulity. How could this person, this humble gentleman who everyone loved like a father, cover up and enable such acts? How could this man who did so much for so many people, both on and off the football field, have done something so heinous? It defies logic. It defies belief. That’s what cognitive dissonance is.
I will admit it. This bothered me as well. A year ago today, even as a Buckeye fan, I still respected JoePa as both a great coach and a human being. 8 months ago, when all of this first came to light, I found it inconceivable that Paterno knew about all of this and covered it up. It just went against everything he had done and stood for for over half a century. I didn’t want to believe the worst about him. So I held my judgment. The facts would come to light eventually. And if they didn’t, without proof of any wrongdoing on JoePa’s part, I would trust what he had shown us and still think that he was a good man. But today, today makes believing anything but the worst about Paterno impossible.
And the revelations in the Freeh report today are damning. It almost seems like Sandusky wasn’t reported to the police in 1998 solely based on Paterno’s advice and opinions. The report is 267 horrific pages that show a corrupt power structure at Penn State that protected one of their own at the expense of at least dozens of young boys. Maybe they believed it was a one-time thing and that Sandusky would never do it again. Unlikely, but maybe they did. But once is still an infinite number of times too many.
So I, an unbiased but respectful fan, can say today than Joe Paterno enabled and protected a terrible human being. All of those children who were to be molested in the last 14 years are certainly on his head. But I also realize that for the caring and passionate Penn State fans, this is impossible to digest. And we have seen it all day long. Those of us on Twitter see Penn State fans saying things that are misguided, to say the least. Passionate defenses of Paterno and Penn State come across to those of us who aren’t as involved as almost condoning what happened. I have seen so many non-Penn State fans shocked and disgusted by the defense of these Penn State fans. But I understand. It’s cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance can’t last forever though. In the end, something has to break. Either a person will deny the facts or he’ll change his original opinion. I think that, in time, many Penn State fans will see the facts and will, in time, come to realize that Paterno wasn’t really the JoePa they always thought he was. A year from now, I am sure, Matt Millen will come to regret everything he said on the air. It’s not fair for any of us to expect someone so emotionally invested in Paterno and Penn State to be able to accept what was revealed today. It’s not fair to expect that of Millen or of any Penn Sate fan.
The instant communication world of social media means that a person can tell their immediate reaction to anything to the entire world. And, in this case, that’s not a good thing. People still too emotionally invested to think logically about this are stating opinions that they can never take back. Matt Millen will have to live with his comments today for the rest of his life. And it’s not fair to any of them.
Millen said that this doesn’t eliminate all of the good things that Paterno has done. And he’s right. It doesn’t. Paterno positively affected millions of lives. But that’s not his only legacy now. His surviving legacy will be those hundred or so who he could have saved, but didn’t. Paterno helped a lot of people in many ways. But mentioning him now also means mentioning someone who enabled a friend to violate and assault-both physically and emotionally-dozens (at least) of young boys. It is not a tarnished legacy, but a shattered one. Some of us can realize that now and are therefore disgusted when we see what amounts to, in our eyes, defenses of Paterno. But it’s not fair to expect those who viewed someone as a father-figure to be able to realize that he enabled atrocities. Certainly not to come to grips with that in a day.