It’s difficult to look at the images of the Penn State University students performing pep rally chants and turning over a media van to protest Joe Paterno’s firing and not think: Shame on us all.

Shame on us for creating a culture where thousands of students are so caught up in idol worship that they can’t see how repugnant it is to pine for a man who essentially looked the other way as serious allegations of rape and child abuse were leveled at his top aide.

Penn State students stand outside Old Main on campus protesting the handling of a child abuse scandal involving a retired Penn State football coach in State College, Pa., Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. The Penn State board of trustees fired football coach Joe Paterno Wednesday night amid the growing furor over how the school handled sex abuse allegations against an assistant coach. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Shame on us for creating institutions so powerful that the first instinct is to turn inward and protect its image, even as a grown man is allegedly showering with and raping small boys. (Former coach Jerry Sandusky has denied the charges.)

I say these things as a sports fan who loves football Saturdays, so much that I often can’t imagine being anywhere else on those evenings than plopped in front of the television, watching the marquee game of the week. As much as money has bastardized college football, there is still something about the cheering of the crowd, the enthusiasm of the bands and fight songs, the longstanding rivalries. The mini-families, our very own tribes, that are created around our teams as they do battle for supremacy of their conferences.

So, I surely understand school pride and exuberance. We start watching our teams during the spring intrasquad game and, if we’re lucky, they qualify for a BCS bowl or the national title game. Penn Staters, no doubt, still have a championship run on their mind as they sit high in the rankings, with a single loss to a tough Alabama team.

And the fans worry that without their beloved JoePa on the sidelines, they risk throwing away a dream season. But this isn’t about a dream season or a tarnished image. This isn’t about Paterno’s career with no NCAA violations or his image as an ethicist who did things the right way. This is about lost innocence that can never be regained. This is about the most heinous of alleged crimes and the adults who looked away, seemingly to protect themselves and a longtime friend. Paterno, the biggest honcho of all in State College, could have done something. .

But he chose not to. What else did he look away from? Being sorry and saying he should have done more feels insufficient at this point. Especially when he attempted to bully his betters into letting him coach just a few more games.

Good for them for telling Paterno he was not the whole institution, no matter how long he’s been there.

The courts will figure out the details of who is criminally responsible. But we are all responsible for creating a climate that would lead young people into the streets to riot on behalf of a fired football coach while the alleged victims’ families are dealing with the devastation of allegations of sexual abuse.

That, at a minimum, has to be something that transcends our school and conference rivalries. Fortunately, there were Penn Staters who recognize that and held signs like this one, “Paterno is NOT the victim.”

Shame on those of us who can’t see that.

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