Hero Worship August 1, 2012


by James Stefanile, ABR, GRI, SRES, QSC, REALTOR/Salesperson, Prudential New Jersey Properties, Montclair, NJ

I’ve been following the Penn State child abuse scandal with morbid fascination.  The crimes themselves are gruesome and unbelievable but what’s incredible is the aftermath, the reactions to the sanctions and press pillorying of the University, especially with regard to the legacy of Joe Paterno.

Paterno’s family has embarked on a charm offensive to try to preserve the deceased patriarch’s pre-eminence in the history of Penn State.  Students, players and alumni have reacted strongly and negatively to the NCAA’s sanctions against the football program.  The reaction in some of the media has been negative toward the sanctions and in the blogosphere the reaction has been even more stridently adverse.  Penn State’s new head coach, Bill O’Brien, based on his recent news conference, is taking a seemingly unrepentant stance and promising to “punch back”.

The leaders of the University left standing have, to their credit, been repentant and accepting of responsibility (the smart posture when you get caught red-handed).  Former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s investigative report (click to download it) focused on the culture around the football program and the willingness of the community to close its eyes to wrongdoing because football had the community in its thrall.   The University also liked all the money the football program raked in. Joe Paterno was a legendary presence on the campus and widely beloved as “Joe Pa”.  He was the winningest coach in NCAA history (or something like that) and enjoyed the worship of students, players and university hierarchy alike.

Joe Paterno’s statue at Penn State removed. The idol had clay feet.

Any hero-worship is dangerous and usually undeserved.  I am dumbfounded that the majority of current discourse at Penn State is about the tarnished reputation of  the University, the football program and especially of Paterno.  It would seem a few insignificant children were secondary to the money, power and prestige of football. The discussion of the hideous crimes committed on the campus property and the subsequent cover-up by Paterno, the football establishment and the higher-ups in the university administration has become secondary as Penn State boosters take an aggrieved posture.  The only possible reaction from ANYONE associated with Penn State is “We are ashamed that our culture hid and nutured this monster for so many years and we are deeply sorry for the lives this individual impacted so negatively.  We will do everything in our power to be sure this never happens again”.  There’s no room for “I had nothing to do with this, I’m just a student (faculty member, football player, etc.)”, but that reaction is rampant (as the comment attached to this post indicates).

An anguished Paterno worshipper mourns the statue’s removal.

Why?  Because we need our heroes and when they fall it upsets our balance in the world.  Heroes are everywhere in every human endeavor.  I see it in real estate as well.  We hold certain trainers, executives and top producers in high regard bordering on worship.  If you want a sample, take a look at Inman News’ 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders.  I’ve been to seminars where numerous round table discussions feted a particular trainer or producer to the point of idolatry.  Grown adults have dissolved in tears on these panels while extolling the virtues of a trainer or motivator who showed them the way. In my former profession of show biz there was no lack of folks who walked on water by reputation and enjoyed the hushed admiration of us mere mortals.  Even in my college days, I remember a certain professor who was so worshipped that some students kept the flame alive decades after they graduated and feted him with banquets and his own newsletter until his retirement which was celebrated like the Ascension Into Heaven.  I think any well-adjusted adult would see that kind of hero-worship coming and put a stop to it immediately.  Not him.  He seemed to thrive on it, thereby making the collegiate experience about him and not the students.  Just like Paterno.

Let me explain that I am not a big football fan and care even less about college athletics so the whole football culture worship is lost on me.  I am even less impressed with real estate royalty.  And, as far as my experiences in show business are concerned, I worked with a lot of legends and, with a few notable exceptions, found them to be often-times vain and stupid, with a sprinkling of drunkards and drug users.  Regarding the college professor idolized by my fellow students, I worked with him, made him look very good on a couple of occasions through my efforts as an actor (I was already a pro) and found him to be a rather limited individual with a minor talent at best.  When my acting career really took off I think he was miffed that I never attributed my success to him (a delusion).  Too bad.

As with most mythology, heroes help perpetrate the fables we need to exist in a world that can be unforgiving and uncaring.  The fairy tales told to children help focus their place in the world beginning with a child’s magical, non-logical thinking.  The hero-worship and celebrity fan-dom of our adulthood reinforce the achievement myths we must believe in order to keep moving forward.

Real estate is rife with these myths.  Motivational speakers and trainers would be out of business without them.  The NAR is even perpetrating the myth that home ownership leads to high self-esteem among children.  All you apartment dwelling children are doomed, I guess.

My beef with mythology is that it clouds reality – it ain’t real.  It lulls us and coddles us into behavior that does not relate to the real world we live in.  A recent news report recounted many injuries when apostles of a superstar motivational guru walked on hot coals as part of one of his events in order to prove God knows what.  Is it just me or are these people so hypnotised by this paladin’s palaver and the myths manufactured by his image makers that they would actually put themselves in danger?

Heroes diminish everyone else by mere comparison.  There have certainly been individuals who have distinguished themselves by their achievements and we should celebrate those achievements as incidents in a person’s life and not celebrate the person as a god.  That’s where we get into trouble because there is no human life that is truly, entirely heroic.  Even the most beloved of exemplars in the past 100 years or so have been subsequently reported to have had some peccadilloes and perversions.

People who are brave in the face of adversity (or who are just victims of adversity) are also, often called heroes.  There’s no doubt that bravery is admirable but I’m not sure it qualifies as heroic and I know that someone who catches our eye simply because of misfortune is not a hero just because our empathy has run amok.

Every profession I have held has its myths that encourage forward motion in order to prevent inertia.  The actor believes his big break is right around the corner.  The Realtor believes if he answers every phone call and knocks on every door the odds are he’ll score big.  I’m not encouraging inaction, just reality.  Real estate trainers and gurus tell us to follow their programs with blind faith.  We share the myth that if we sit in the office long enough that million dollar buyer will come walking through the door.  We think if we zealously do “opportunity time” in our brokerage we won’t just be unpaid receptionists, but, rather, that big, big deal will be calling in and falling into our laps.  A super achiever agent who does 100 deals a year is called a hero.  Could be he has a lot of grunts doing the work after he gets the signatures and he never has any more contact with his clients  after that.  It’s a business model and not a heroic activity.

I respect some achievements (a select few) but don’t have any real heroes.  Humans are too frail and riddled with faults to be worshipped.  I believe in a state of forward motion based on the real world and not the fairy tales of my childhood.


A cavalcade of clay feet (to name only a few) and, in some cases, our plans to love them again:

“I am not a crook…”

  Richard Nixon:

Effectively ended the Vietnam War, opened China, constitutional criminal, resigned. A first that, hopefully, will not be repeated.  He devoted much of his post Presidency to rehabilitating his image and succeeded to a certain extent.

“I did not have sex with that woman…”:

  Bill Clinton:

Presided over a budget surplus, disgraced the Presidency with his rapacious sexual appetite, lied about it and was impeached but not convicted because his Party controlled the Senate (a low point in the history of the Republic).  He is one of our most popular former Presidents – the mind boggles.  He will have a keynote role in the 2012 Democratic National Convention and will most likely nominate Barack Obama as the Party’s candidate for President – a singular honor.

An old soldier who “just faded away”:

  Douglas MacArthur:

Brilliant army general,  publicly   advocated invading China and using nuclear weapons during the Korean War.  Defiant to his President and Commander-In-Chief and finally relieved of duty.  A dangerous demagogue who was swept away by a President he held in contempt, who he considered to be weak and politically crippled and who he dreamed of replacing.  He famously said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”  The world, somehow, has survived his fade.

Shiny Helmet, Silver Revolver & Cavalry Boots make the man:

 General George Patton:

Outstanding strategist and commander of the US Third Army in World War II.  My father served under him as he raced through France after Normandy and in The Bulge.  Patton, vain and eccentric, was instrumental in the Allied victories in North Africa and Europe but not before he slapped 2 American soldiers accusing them of “malingering” when they were most likely suffering the effects of PTSD (one was actually suffering from malaria).  He advocated pushing the Soviets back into Russia while America still had the Army in Europe and was finally relieved of command when he compared the defeated Nazis to the “Democrats back home”.

Divine Dynamic Duo:

 Jim and Tammy Rae Bakker:

Evangelists doin’ God’s work while he was having an affair and doin’ some fancy financial footwork (read: accounting fraud).  She was not prosecuted (!!) and became a caricature and a gargoyle, divorcing him while he cooled his heels in the slam.  Her eventual, terminal illness made her very popular again.  His illicit paramour did very well by association and was a household name for a while (she won’t get any further mention here).

I can’t get enough of these guys:

 Jerry Falwell:

Another televangelist, was acquitted on a technicality in a fraud prosecution by the SEC.  Blamed 9/11 on the “abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians”.  Later apologized.  Called Ellen DeGeneres “Ellen DeGenerate” after she came out.  DeGeneres responded by saying “Really, he called me that? Ellen DeGenerate? I’ve been getting that since the fourth grade. I guess I’m happy I could give him work.”  Falwell left a legacy of hate speech that God would definitely disapprove.


 Brett Favre:

Great NFL quarterback, reckless Tweeter

Why any man would Tweet pictures of THAT is beyond me but I guess there’s an audience for everything, or at least that’s what Brett thought.  Still well-regarded and doing jeans commercials now.  Let’s hope there are extra strong buttons on those button-fly jeans.

Can you say “Political Putz”?:

  Andrew Weiner:

Was almost NYC Mayor, reckless Tweets of his weiner. Forced from his seat in Congress by his Party leadership, made the all-too-familiar public mea culpa, retreated into the shadows for a while but now is making noises about getting back in the game.  Just keep your pants on this time, Andy.

“Customer 9”:

 Elliot Spitzer:

A NY governor who couldn’t govern his passions and his taste for the bad girls.  Was outed and forced to resign.  His wife, Silda actually said, “This is my failing; I wasn’t adequate.”  There’s hero-worship for you.  The good news: His favorite hooker milked her infamy and was born again as a sex-advice columnist.  She won’t get any more press here.  He’s been hired as a TV political analyst and, rumor has it, he’s biding his time, collecting money, waiting for the opportunity to re-emerge as a political heavyweight.

The man who made “Hiking the Appalachians” a euphemism:

 Mark Sanford:

Went AWOL from his job as South Carolina Governor for 6 days in 2009.  His office said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail when, actually, he was on the Argentinian Poontang Trail.  The once potential Republican presidential candidate was forced to resign when his adulterous sex scandal finally broke.  One bright spot: his wife, Jenny, did not stand by him at his mea culpa press conference, moved out of the governor’s mansion and divorced him, saying, “Certainly his actions hurt me, and they caused consequences for me, but they don’t in any way take away my own self-esteem. They reflect poorly on him.”  You go, girl!  He launched a new career as a Fox News political analyst.  Where would Fox News be without all these defeated and disgraced Republicans?  They’d have to look elsewhere for their hiring – like among journalists, maybe?

Tiger Blood:

 Charlie Sheen:

I don’t know where to begin with this guy.  He was, for years, the most popular and highest paid actor on television.  He had a break-out movie career and was a money machine for the entities that employed him.  Those same entities tolerated his violence toward women – also for years – and his drug use.  Finally, he melted down to where his demons showed through the veneer to the point that he could no longer be employed.  We gasped a collective gasp at his antics during his drug-fueled ranting but it was still great entertainment and we were VERY entertained.  He seems to have come in for a landing lately and we’re back to rewarding him with car commercials and a new sitcom.  There’s no evidence that this troubled man has had a final epiphany but anyone who stands to make a buck off him doesn’t seem to be noticing.  The cable channel FX just ordered 90 more episodes of his new sitcom.  Now Charlie knows where he’ll be reporting to work (or at least where he should be reporting to work) for the next 2 years.  He claims this will be his “swan song” from acting and public life.  Promise, Charlie?

“The Georgia Peach”:

  Ty Cobb:

Probably the greatest baseball player of all time. Selfish, violent, racist.  Attacked a handicapped fan in the stands, was widely disliked by players and the baseball establishment as a whole. Definitely not a team player or good teamate.  Is still mentioned with hushed reverence for his baseball skills.

“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”:

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson:

Baseball hero, threw the 1919 World Series for gangster Arnold Rothstein.  Rothstein wasn’t even indicted.  Joe was and was eventually acquitted (even though he admitted wrongdoing) but was banned from baseball.  He was famously  confronted by a young fan who said, “Say  it ain’t so, Joe!”  Don’t worry kid, his reinstatement is being considered even today.

“The Juice” gets spilled:

  OJ Simpson:

Football hero, terrible husband.  Skated on the murder wrap but lived as a pariah until another brush with the law put him away, possibly for good.

Tiger, tiger burning bright:

Tiger Woods:

One of the world’s best golfers, role model, champion of diversity, champion adulterer and collector of low life bimbos.  Engaged in a very public repentance.  His golf game suffered.  I guess he had to get used to swingin’ that other club again.

In the dog house:

  Michael Vick:

Great quarterback, terrible pet owner.  Did his time, made repentant noises and is now re-instated in the NFL and regaining his star status.  He was named the 2010 NFL Comeback Player of the Year and was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl.  He won back an endorsment from a car insurance company and is his charming self on its commercial.

You can’t make this stuff up. Evangelicals are my favorite:

  Jimmy Swaggart:

Doin’ God’s work while doin’ it with prostitutes.  Cried his way through it and had to give up his pulpit.  He was outed as payback by another minister whose sexual dalliances Jimmy had exposed.  Swaggart was suspended then finally defrocked by The Louisiana Presbytery of the Assemblies of God.  Three years later he was at it again when he and his “date” were stopped by a cop who asked the hooker why she was with Swaggart.  She replied, “He asked me for sex. I mean, that’s why he stopped me. That’s what I do. I’m a prostitute.”  At last, an honest person!

Broken Covenant:

 Bruce Ritter:

Roman Catholic priest and one-time Franciscan friar who founded the charity Covenant House in 1972 for homeless teenagers, from which he was forced to resign in 1990 after accusations that he had engaged in financial improprieties and had engaged in sexual relations with several youth in the care of the charity.  This guy really gets me.  He abused the trust of the very people, vulnerable street kids, he had been sworn to protect.  He founded the damn thing!  And then he turns around and adds one more horror to the lives of kids whose past had been made up of just such betrayals.  For the longest time I contributed to Covenant House.  Ritter’s direct mail entreaties were heartbreaking and brilliant, so I feel betrayed also.  He was not defrocked or prosecuted and was a Roman Catholic priest till the day he died and went to a judgment I’ll bet he wanted to postpone forever.

Record Holder (with an asterisk):

  Barry Bonds:

Most all time homers, all ’round nice guy (not).

Widely suspected of steroid use, convicted of obstruction of justice.

A too easy target:

  Mike Tyson:

Heavyweight Champ, convicted rapist, thug.  Arrested for cocaine use and DUI. Tyson lost his WBA crown to Evander Holyfield in November 1996 by an 11th round TKO. Their 1997 rematch ended when Tyson was disqualified for biting off part of Holyfield’s ear – but Mike’s on Broadway now with a one man show (we are definitely doomed).  Read Neil Genzlinger’s review from The New York Times at  http://theater.nytimes.com/2012/08/03/theater/reviews/mike-tyson-undisputed-truth-at-longacre-theater.html?ref=arts for a few more chuckles.  In the first week of its limited engagement run, Tyson’s show sold out almost 80% and earned almost $700,000.  I’m gonna sit in the car in the garage with the motor running for a while…

Instead of fasting before surgery, he had fast sex:

  Kobe Bryant:

Another terrible husband, but fixed it with a big diamond ring. Another hero who skated on criminal charges of sexual assault but was convicted of being a schmuck in the court of public opinion for having illicit sex the night before knee surgery.  His reputation is, seemingly, repaired and we worship him once more for throwing a ball through a hoop.  He even got a hug from Michelle Obama at the London Olympics when his “dream team” defeated France. France?  Really?  Do the French even know what basketball is?

Deep breath…now hold it…

 Michael Phelps:

I’ll go easy on this one because the infraction is slight.  Olympic gold medalist.  Photographed taking a bong hit.  Hint: don’t invite him to your party and share your herbs.  His lung capacity will suck up your whole stash.  Kellogg’s dropped him from their cereal boxes.  Of course there’s no connection between weed and cereal, right?  He recovered from this herbal hiccup and has now won at least 20 medals with his 2008 and 2012 London medals.  The most ever.  Swimmin’ sober! (we hope).

“Charlie Hustle” hustles the game:

Pete Rose:

All time MLB hits leader, banned for life for gambling on the game.  Is angling for reinstatement so he can be eligible for the Hall of Fame.  He has his supporters.  Never happen?  He’s hoping that he and “Shoeless Joe” will be forgiven.  He’s intently watching Derek Jeter of the NY Yankees who could, convievably, break his all time record of 4,200+ hits.  Jeter is a player deserving of the distinction while Pete’s banishment is what he deserves.

And finally, some women:

  Marion Jones:

Holder of Olympic records,  stripped of them and  banned for steroid use and convicted of perjury about it, also convicted and jailed for check fraud.

A-lister shoplifter:

 Winona Ryder:

Big time movie star, she was accused of stealing $5,500 worth of designer clothes and accessories at a Saks Fifth Avenue department store in Beverly Hills in 2001.  During the trial she was accused of using drugs, including Oxycodone, Valium and Vicodin, without valid prescriptions. Ryder was convicted of grand theft, shoplifting, and vandalism.  She claimed she was “researching a role”.

The “It Girl”:

 Paris Hilton:

Not really sure what she’s famous for besides starring in a sex tape and operating a motor vehicle without underwear.  A fashion and style icon and tv reality performer.  Multiple motor vehicle arrests resulting in jail time.  Also arrested for possession of cocaine, her defense claimed that the handbag containing 0.8g of cocaine was not hers, saying, “This purse in question was a high street brand – and by no means up to her high fashion standards.”

And last and certainly least:

Tonya Harding:

Champion figure skater.  Arranged to knee-cap a competitor and eventually convicted of conspiracy. Was a professional boxer for a while, in between starring in a sex tape, drunk driving and domestic violence convictions.  She now makes fun of other people on the TV reality show World’s Dumbest.  The irony is so strong it stings.